Turmoil over N.H. bishop threatening Maine church

As leaders of the global Anglican Communion struggle to avoid a schism over homosexuality, members of the Episcopal Church in Maine are facing a similar divide.

The decision in August by the General Convention of the U.S. church to allow a gay man to be the next bishop of New Hampshire was a “tragic mistake,” according to a resolution issued by the leaders of the Christ Episcopal Church in Gardiner, the original see – center of authority – of the church in Maine.

The leaders have submitted to the Diocese of Maine a resolution that would prevent it from forcing clergy to act outside their consciences regarding the issue of sexuality and the blessing of same-sex unions. The resolution will be voted on next week by more than 300 church members at a convention in Bangor.

Meanwhile, the division among Episcopalians over homosexuality may prove to be a boon for the Anglican Church in America, which has a central cathedral in Portland.

Maine leaders of that sect say they are holding discussions with disaffected Episcopal priests and lay members around the state about joining the Anglican Church in America. The Anglican Church in America broke away from the Episcopal Church and its parent Anglican Communion nearly 30 years ago over similar issues.

“It has allowed us to be a beacon again,” said the Very Rev. Lester York, dean of the Anglican Cathedral of St. Paul in Portland. The cathedral was recently named the official center of authority for a diocese that includes New England and New York.

St. Paul was a rebel Episcopal church that broke away in 1989 because it believed that the Episcopal Church’s views on sexuality – including the consecration of a woman bishop in Boston – violated Scripture. The split was formally conducted three years ago after the two sides settled a lawsuit over ownership of St. Paul, one of Portland’s oldest parishes.

At issue now is whether openly gay people can become bishops in the Episcopal Church.

At the end of a crisis meeting this week in England, the leaders of 37 national churches said the diocese of New Hampshire threatened to split the communion if it goes ahead with plans to consecrate the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop on Nov. 2.

The New Hampshire diocese on Friday said it was determined to go ahead with consecrating Robinson, who lives with a male partner. In a statement, the diocese said Robinson was elected bishop because of his nearly three decades of ministry in the diocese, his considerable pastoral skills and his vision.

“His sexuality was incidental to his call to serve as our bishop,” the diocese said.

In North America and Europe, homosexuality is accepted by many as biologically determined. But in Africa – where most Anglicans live – homosexuality is highly stigmatized. Church leaders say acceptance of an openly homosexual bishop in America will make it harder for the Anglican Communion to compete with Islam.

Conservatives in Maine are also upset by the decision of the Episcopal Church to confirm an openly gay man as bishop, and also by the indirect approval of church blessings for same-sex couples.

According to the resolution, the decision contradicts the Scriptures, previous church agreements and the beliefs of the majority of the Christian world.

“There are many church members who have yet to resolve this issue in their own minds,” the resolution said. “We wish to have our voices heard and be recognized on the floor of this convention . . . We also seek assurance that no clergy, vestry, or search committee will be forced to act against their conscience in the future.”

The Episcopal Church – which traces its lineage to the Church of England – has 67 parishes and 14,000 members in Maine. There are four parishes in Portland, including St. Luke’s Cathedral.

The bishop of Maine, the Rt. Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen, is one of the few women bishops in the United States. At a national meeting this summer, she voted in favor of Robinson’s consecration.

“Some of you will agree with my action while others will disagree,” she said in a statement that is posted on the church’s Web site. “You are always free to disagree with your bishop; the honored Anglican tradition of dissent not only suggests we will see things differently, it assures that we can do so, forbearing with one another in love.”

But dissent may also lead to an exodus from the Episcopal church, predicts Granville Henthorne, official of St. Thomas in Ellsworth, a parish of the Anglican Church in America.

In the past month, he said, three groups of lay people have approached him about joining the Anglican Church. Next Thursday, he is meeting with 30 members of one Episcopal parish.

“They are unhappy,” he said. “They don’t like the trend and direction the church has taken.”

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