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MASSACHUSETTS: Episcopal split reaches Mass. diocese

MASSACHUSETTS: Episcopal split reaches Mass. diocese
N.E. churches leaving over teachings on gays, salvation

By Charles A. Radin,
Globe Staff
November 19, 2006

ATTLEBORO -- The wave of defections that has rocked the Episcopal Church since the ordination of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in 2003 has reached the liberal Diocese of Massachusetts, where one congregation has severed its ties to the national church. Nearly two dozen others across New England have disassociated themselves from the church's teachings on gay clergy, homosexuality, and salvation.

In the first of what adherents of traditional Anglican doctrine in the United States say will be a string of defections, the Attleboro congregation that for 115 years was known as All Saints Episcopal Church has changed its name to All Saints Anglican Church and affiliated itself with the Anglican Province of Rwanda.

And in a step many see as preliminary to following the lead of All Saints, 23 other churches in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the region have joined the Anglican Communion Network, an organization of US congregations that do not accept current Episcopal teachings on the controversial topics.

"It seems we are at the moment of fracture," said the Rev. William L. Murdoch of All Saints Church in West Newbury, who is the leader of the disaffected churches in New England.

The Rev. Lance K. Giuffrida , an Episcopal minister for 28 years and pastor of All Saints in Attleboro for the last five, said, "We did not want to go. We thought we could turn this around. We were wrong."

After the ordination of V. Gene Robinson , a gay man, as bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, disaffected congregations asked that the national convention of the church return to a literal reading of the Bible that unequivocally forbids homosexuality. They also asked Episcopal leaders to affirm that the only route to salvation was through Jesus.

The 2006 convention did neither of these things, leading congregations such as All Saints of Attleboro to leave the denomination and others to request that they be overseen by traditionally oriented bishops rather than those who support the new teachings, such as M. Thomas Shaw , the bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts.

All Saints did not seek alternative oversight, Giuffrida said, because the congregation had decided there was no chance that its views could be reconciled with those of the liberal majority in the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church is the US unit of the international Anglican Communion. Disaffected churches such as All Saints are affiliating themselves with other units, such as the Province of Rwanda, where literal adherence to scripture and aversion to homosexuality remain strong.

All Saints has taken the word "Episcopal" off its sign on Main Street, which now proclaims that this is an Anglican, orthodox church. Members have asked the diocese to give them the title to the church building, and declared they will move elsewhere if an agreement cannot be struck to transfer the church property.

Five years spent discussing the issues and reaching the decision to leave the Episcopal Church changed the personality of All Saints, according to Ron Wheelock , an active member of the congregation.

Parishioners concluded that the majority in the Episcopal Church of the United States, which backs full acceptance of gays and lesbians and does not hold that belief in Jesus is the only route to salvation, "are at odds with the vast majority of Anglicans, with the Christian community of North America, and with Christians throughout the world," Wheelock said.

"We said we wouldn't go along" said Bill McElhanon , 62, who attended Mass at All Saints in Attleboro Wednesday night . "The Bible clearly says men don't lie with men and women don't lie with women, and we're going to live by the Bible even if we have to have our meetings in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot under parasols."

Tracy Merigold , who moved to All Saints from an Episcopal parish in North Attleborough four years ago because she disliked the direction of the denomination, said: "This is not a gay issue. It is not a divorce issue. It is an issue of the sanctity and centrality of Scripture."

Merigold and other parishioners express passionate belief in Jesus's statement in the Gospel According to John that, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." They vehemently reject statements by the newly installed presiding bishop of the Episcopal church and other church leaders that God may bring people to salvation who have not declared their faith in Christ.

According to the American Anglican Council, an Atlanta-based organization of Episcopalians committed to orthodox Anglican teachings, about 250 congregations have broken with the Episcopal Church in the United States and affiliated with other Anglican groupings, particularly African provinces of the Anglican Communion, which oppose gay clergy and same-sex unions.

About 1,000 other congregations have indicated strong dissent with the church by affiliating with the Anglican Communion Network, an organization dedicated to expanding orthodoxy among Anglicans and sheltering orthodox congregations from liberal Episcopal bishops. The network encompasses congregations that have broken from the Episcopal Church and congregations that do not accept the new teachings but have not broken away.

The figures for breakaway congregations are disputed by Episcopal Church officials, who say that only about 35 of their 7,200 congregations have voted to affiliate with overseas Anglican groupings.

"Parishioners and clergy may chose to disaffiliate," said Robert Williams , director of communication for the Episcopal Church. But he said the parishes themselves are part of the Episcopal Church and may not be removed from it by dissidents.

Williams called the orthodox Anglican organizations in the United States "a vocal minority that persists in citing statistics that are inflated and aimed at undermining the health and vitality of the denomination."

But the Rev. David C. Anderson , president of the American Anglican Council, a group of clergy and laity that shares the orthodox beliefs and goals of the Anglican Communion Network, says the Episcopal Church is trying to minimize the extent of defections by counting as active parishes "where they have been left with four walls and a janitor" and whose congregants have broken away and are meeting elsewhere.

In the case of Attleboro, Shaw, the head of the Diocese of Massachusetts, said that despite the declarations and actions of All Saints -- which include worshipping with a bishop affiliated with the Anglican Province of Rwanda and requesting title to the church building and grounds -- he does not consider the congregation to have left the Episcopal diocese.

Shaw said the diocese received no formal notice that All Saints was leaving the church. He said that transferring supervision of the Attleboro congregation to the Province of Rwanda was "not possible canonically," and that he does not recognize Thaddeus Barnum , the New England representative of the Province of Rwanda, as a bishop.

Giuffrida, however, said that "I am not sure why it is not clear -- we told them we are leaving, with or without the property."

Shaw said the future of the property is under negotiation.

Giuffrida said congregants are given the option of directing their donations to the Episcopal Church or to the orthodox Anglican organizations and that 90 percent of the donations are earmarked for the orthodox groups.

"It is very hard for me to understand people who say there is no schism," Giuffrida said, adding that he believed virtually all of the congregations now affiliated with the Anglican Communion Network eventually will become part of a new Anglican unit in North America separate from the Episcopal Church.

The Anglican tradition came to the United States as an extension of the Church of England, which spread Anglicanism internationally through the British empire. It became self-governing and changed its name to Episcopal -- from the Greek word for "government by bishops" -- after the Revolutionary War. Today there are 38 self-governing groupings of Anglican churches in the world, of which the Church of England is one.

The majority of the world's 77 million Anglicans live in Africa, and most breakaway Episcopal congregations have affiliated with Anglican groupings in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya.

In those countries, leading bishops support Americans who want to maintain Anglican affiliations but do not accept Episcopal positions on sexuality and salvation.

In an effort to keep as many congregations as possible from breaking away, officials in some liberal dioceses, including Massachusetts, have negotiated agreements to delegate oversight responsibility for traditionally oriented churches to bishops from other dioceses who share that orientation.

Shaw agreed to such an arrangement with Church of the Holy Trinity, in Marlborough, which for the past two years has been under the authority of a retired Canadian bishop who is an orthodox Anglican.

The pastor, the Reverend Michael McKinnon , said removing the church from Shaw's oversight was a condition of his accepting the pulpit in the aftermath of Robinson's ordination.

McKinnon praised Shaw's flexibility and sensitivity to the feelings of conservatives, but he also said that there is little hope for reconciliation between the Episcopal Church and the congregations affiliated with the Anglican network.

Holy Trinity and the other churches in the network, he said, "completely disassociate themselves from the innovative, unilateral, and divisive actions of the Episcopal Church."

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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