Lesbian priest who could split the Anglican Church

Schism fears revived as San Francisco church’s election for a new bishop includes three candidates who live with gay partners

It is not an election that would normally attract world attention, but when a few hundred Christians gather to choose a new Episcopal Bishop of California today, millions around the globe will be watching.

The reason is simple. Three of the seven candidates are gay or lesbian, and live openly with their same-sex partners. If one of them wins, the victory could well fracture the Episcopal Church in America and trigger a schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion to which it belongs.

It would be like “a terrorist bomb which is timed to destroy a peace process”, says the Rev Paul Zahl, dean of the conservative Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Pennsylvania.

The “peace process” he refers to was made necessary by the Episcopal Church’s consecration, three years ago, of Gene Robinson as its first gay bishop.

That choice created ferment among the world’s 77 million Anglicans. It outraged conservatives, particularly in Africa, where the Church is growing fast but where homosexuality is taboo.

Today about 300 local clergy and 400 lay electors from 86 churches with 27,000 parishioners will gather in Grace Cathedral, on Nob Hill in San Francisco, to choose the next bishop for one of America’s most left-wing dioceses.

The candidates include the Very Rev Robert Taylor, the Rev Canon Michael Barlowe and the Rev Bonnie Perry — all of whom are gay.

The election of a second gay bishop would create a crisis both inside the American Church — which would have to decide whether to consent to the appointment — and with fellow Anglicans around the world.

It would be seen as a rebuff for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Windsor Report, which recommended a moratorium on such appointments, and to a special commission of the American church that has tried to defuse the issue by counselling “very considerable caution”.

“The atmosphere is electric,” Canon Kendall Harmon, of South Carolina, a leading church conservative who writes a widely read blog, said. “If they were to choose a same-sex partnered candidate it’s so clearly a repudiation.”

Ian Douglas, co-chairman of the 14-member special commission, predicted that electing a gay bishop would make Anglicans reconsider seriously the place of the American Episcopal Church in the 77 million-strong worldwide Communion.

“It could not be let go by. It would provoke a response on the inter-Anglican level,” Mr Douglas said. “I can imagine some would be calling for out-and-out disenfranchisement of the Episcopal Church.” The Rev John Kirkley, rector at predominantly gay St John the Evangelist Church in San Francisco and a leader of the Episcopal gay-rights group Oasis, sees a clash as inevitable. “If it does not happen here, it’ s just going to happen somewhere else down the road,” he said.

Episcopalians in the gay-friendly Bay area of the city find it hard to understand what the all the fuss is about.

The right of homosexuals to become bishops enjoys near universal support in the diocese — where 8 per cent of parishioners identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. None of the four heterosexual candidates opposes gay bishops.

Arthur Holder, professor of Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and one of the electors, noted that all the homosexual candidates were recognised leaders of the church. “The focus on this one decision is absolutely understandable,” he said. “But this is how we live all the time.”

Two of the non-gay candidates — the Rt Rev Mark Andrus and the Rev Eugene Sutton — were finding favour in the final hours before the vote, but there was still resentment at the Anglican hierarchy’s effort to prevent the diocese naming America’s second openly gay bishop.

“Underneath, we all see this as the bad parent who says ‘I’m going to spank you if you do it. I really mean it this time!’,” says Rosa Lee Harden, rector of Holy Innocents church in San Francisco’s gay-friendly Castro district, whose 15-strong congregation is evenly divided between gays and straights.

Whoever is elected today must receive the consent of the Episcopal Church’s general convention next month in Columbus, Ohio, before taking office.

The three-yearly convention is to take up a proposal calling for “very considerable caution” in selecting bishops with same-sex partners.

But it is far from clear that the convention would block California’s choice if the winner were a gay or lesbian person.

The frontrunner to become the new presiding bishop, who will be chosen at the meeting, is Bishop Neil Alexander, of Atlanta, an outspoken supporter of gays serving as bishops.

See Also

Among the things that concern Christians regarding this issue is the question whether or not a gay or lesbian minister can uphold the authority of the Bible. See, for example, these editorials published during the controversy regarding Gene Robinson’s appointment: Is gay bishop a fit religious leader? and Weakening the church: The Bible and Rev. Robinson


Bonnie Perry Rector of All Saints in Chicago. Certified kayak instructor and “recreational tree climber” who has introduced “pet blessing” ceremonies and offering champagne in the communion cup. Her partner of 18 years is Susan Harlow, a minister of the United Church of Christ and theology professor

Michael Barlowe: Diocesal officer in California added to shortlist by parishioners’ petition. Shares “lifelong commitment to unconditional love” with Paul Burrows, rector of an Episcopal church in San Francisco

Robert Taylor South African-born protege of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and first openly gay dean of an American cathedral, in Seattle. Enjoys “the outdoors, exercise, music, reading and movies” with his friend Jerry Smith

Mark Andrus “Social justice” activist and yoga-practising Bishop Suffragan in the Diocese of Alabama. Married with two children

Eugene Sutton Charismatic canon of the National Cathedral in Washington DC and the only black candidate. Wife is a professional musician. Four children

Jane Gould Rector of St Stephen’s Church in Massachusetts. Previously chaplain of Massachusetts Institute of Technology with history of anti-war protest dating back to Vietnam. Husband is a writer and teacher. Two children

Donald Schell Rector of St Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, added to shortlist by parishioners’ petition. Wife is an Aids activist. Four children


“It is my hope that the church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irrevocable decisions are made”
Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams

“We are going against the created order. Same-sex relationships are not right, they are unbiblical and therefore sinful. We may be heading for a split”
Bishop of Central Zambia, Derek Kamukwamba

“I believe that the acceptance of gay and lesbian people into the life of the church is something that is going to happen. It will happen in God’s own time. The issue has to be faced”
Gene Robinson, America’s first openly gay Bishop

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Times, USA
May 6, 2006
James Bone

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday May 7, 2006.
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