NEW HAMPSHIRE: Gay controversy will taper off - eventually, says bishop
By NATE PARDUE Staff Writer
October 23, 2005
The first openly gay bishop of the New Hampshire Episcopal Church said he believes the controversy surrounding his election eventually will subside, just as it did when women first became members of the clergy.
But whether the controversy cools before a permanent divide occurs in the Anglican Communion is much more uncertain.
The Episcopal Church is the official province of the worldwide Anglican Communion in the United States.
V. Gene Robinson will celebrate the second anniversary of his consecration next month. He reflected on his two years as bishop in an interview with Foster's Sunday Citizen last week. He compared the outrage over his sexuality with disagreement over the ordination of women priests about three decades ago.
"People tended to be against it until they met a woman who was a priest, and then all of a sudden that seemed to melt away as an issue," he said. "I think we're going to find this true around the gay and lesbian issue as well."
Conservative Episcopalians have been at odds with Robinson since his consecration in November 2003. Those who oppose Robinson say his open homosexuality conflicts with scripture and is a sin for which he must repent. Robinson has said he doesn't feel he's sinning and therefore doesn't need to repent.
But Charles Peppler, who represents the New England Chapter of the American Anglican Council, said Robinson's election represents "a completely new doctrine which contradicts any plain reading of the bible" and 2,000 years of Christian teaching.
"The election of Bishop Robinson has forced a rather complacent Anglican Church in America to deeply examine what it means to follow Christ in a culture that embraces and exalts behavior that is unhealthy and contrary to God's plan," Peppler said.
A number of Episcopal parishes in New Hampshire and throughout the country have broken off from the church since Robinson's consecration, aligning themselves with more traditional church networks. Those organizations include the Anglican Communion Network and the Reformed Episcopal Church.
In April 1988, a majority of parishioners at the Church of the Redeemer in Rochester voted to break off from the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire and seek affiliation with an Anglican diocese. The move came after the church's rector tried to institute changes that would put the church in line with the national Episcopalian Church. Some of those changes included installing female clergy and replacing the 1928 Book of Common Prayer with the 1979 version.
Yet another group of parishioners broke off after Robinson became bishop. The second split so reduced the church's numbers that it was forced to close. Robinson delivered its final service in April.
Robinson said he would work "until my dying day" toward reconciliation, but recent events have made him realize some Anglican leaders are trying to widen the divide.
"More and more, the leadership, not the people in the pews, are making noises as if we have irreconcilable differences,"Robinson said. "I think that's an inappropriate term for Christians. The ministry that Christ gives us is the ministry of reconciliation."
But some conservatives say it's the Episcopal Church - not those who have left the church - that have broken from the Anglican Communion with Robinson's election.
The Rev. William Murdoch, dean of the Anglican Communion Network in the New England Convocation, said controversy over the introduction of women to the clergy involved different arguments than those applying to homosexuality.
Murdoch said scripture doesn't classify being a women as a sin, but does condemn "the behavior of homosexuality" as a sin.
Being a woman, Murdoch said, "is never contrary to moral law."
It will be the responsibility of the Episcopal Church to return to the Anglican Communion if the rift between the two sides is to be repaired, Murdoch said.
"If they continue in this direction," he added, "they will be stepping away from the worldwide Anglican Communion."
Those on the outside of the rift are hesitant to predict how extensive the divide will become or how the disputes will conclude. Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire associate sociology professor, specializes in religious issues and has studied the Episcopal Church's divide.
She said she feels the disagreement over Robinson's consecration has plateaued and that sides have taken a lower profile to let the agitation settle.
Dillon said it's too early to tell with certainty, but the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the conservative branch of disenfranchised followers may remain quietly divided for the time being.
"The division is not going to change," Dillon said. "The two sides are not going to wake up one day and decide to reunite."
That leaves two options: Conservative Episcopalians can form a new church, or they can continue to operate in networks as they now do.
While the Episcopal Church would likely remain intact if conservatives broke away into new churches, its appearance as a stable, long-running church could be in danger. In particular, it could shake the church's image of legitimacy, which could affect the number of members and hurt the potential for attracting new members, Dillon said.
"The bottom line is, the church - any church - is a brand name," Dillon said. "Membership matters. Numbers matter. If those fall, the church may lose public credibility."
Robinson said he will continue to hold out hope for reconciliation, but is ready for anything.
"It would certainly break my heart, and I think it would break God's heart as well,"he said. "I don't think there is any need for us to come apart over this issue."
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