As Episcopalians and Anglicans wait to see if their fractious global fellowship will splinter or hold together in a long-running conflict over homosexuality and the Bible, other denominations are watching nervously.
The same or related issues are roiling many denominations, especially such mainline Protestant churches as Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists. And many church leaders and scholars predict that the way these questions play out in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion will hold lessons for them all.
“The struggle going on inside the Anglican Communion. . . is not peculiar to Anglicanism,” Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic nun, wrote in a recent column in the National Catholic Reporter newspaper. “The issue is in the air we breathe. The Anglicans simply got there earlier than most.”
Conservative Judaism has debated the issue as well, but the conflict is especially pronounced among Protestant churches. Said John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: “They know it’s going to happen to them too.”
Across faith groups, the controversies revolve broadly around homosexuality: whether to allow openly gay and lesbian clergy or bishops and whether to provide official recognition to the unions of same-sex couples. But fundamentally, the debate involves questions of scriptural interpretation and whether the Bible’s teachings are to be seen as unchanging or in cultural and historical context.
The issues are not new. In many American Protestant denominations, the dispute has been simmering for about 30 years, longer than the same groups’ now largely resolved disagreements over ordination for women.
But in recent years, vocal minorities on both ends of the theological spectrum — religious traditionalists on one side, gay religious groups and supporters on the other — have become less inclined to search for middle ground.
Gay and gay-friendly pastors have been tried in church courts, and breakaway parishes and parent churches have fought legal battles over property. The national conventions of several denominations have taken up the topic again and again.
“On both sides of the question, there’s really no willingness at this point to compromise,” said the Rev. Jay Johnson, professor of theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and senior research director at its Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. “This isn’t something that’s negotiable.”
At the center of the storm is the Episcopal Church. With 2.3 million members, the church is dwarfed by many other U.S. denominations, but its wealth and political prominence — one in four U.S. presidents has been Episcopalian — have long given it an outsized influence in the life of the nation.
The church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, a 77-million-member fellowship that is the world’s third-largest Christian denomination. Theological conservatives are a minority in the Episcopal Church, but a large and growing majority among Anglicans worldwide.
The conflict between liberal and conservative church members in the U.S. and abroad escalated in 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire. Tensions increased last year when the American church elected a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as presiding bishop.
In February, the communion’s top leaders, known as primates, gave the Episcopal Church what many considered an ultimatum: to state clearly, by Sept. 30, that it would stop consecrating openly gay bishops and bar official blessings of same-sex couples.
At a meeting in New Orleans just before the deadline, Episcopal bishops crafted a careful statement, trying, several said later, to ease the primates’ concerns and remain true to the Episcopal Church’s long-held policy of inclusion for gays and lesbians.
In the end, the bishops essentially agreed to think twice before consecrating additional gay bishops, saying they would exercise restraint in such decisions. They also promised, for now, not to approve an official prayer service for blessing gay couples.
In an open letter sent Tuesday to the church’s gay and lesbian members, Robinson described the church as being “not of one mind, but struggling to be of one heart.”
Alluding to the human toll exacted by the continuing debate, he also asked gay and lesbian church members to pray for him in “this painful meantime.”
Also this month, an advisory panel to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the communion’s spiritual leader, said the Episcopal bishops had met the primates’ requirements. Williams has asked the primates, leaders of the communion’s 38 national and regional churches, to respond by the end of the month.
Yet dissident Anglican traditionalists in the United States have moved ahead with plans to create an alternative to the Episcopal Church. Leaders representing more than a dozen conservative groups met in Pittsburgh in September and announced that they would eventually seek recognition as the true Anglican representative in North America.
Many conservatives say it is the Episcopal Church and its liberal leaders that have departed from traditional Anglicanism.
“We’ve not left,” said Bishop Martyn Minns, who leads one network of dissident U.S. parishes and attended the Pittsburgh meeting. “They’ve left us. They’ve embraced new teaching, a new understanding of biblical authority, the role of Christ in the church.”
Many of those who took part in Pittsburgh have aligned themselves with conservative Anglican bishops overseas, including the archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, and of Uganda, Henry Luke Orombi.
Both archbishops are expanding their U.S. networks. On Saturday, two bishops affiliated with Orombi’s Anglican Church of Uganda presided at the ordinations of two priests and a deacon at a dissident Newport Beach congregation, St. James Church. And Minns, who leads Akinola’s breakaway group, will ordain a priest and 10 deacons this week in Virginia.
Underlying some of the conflict, religious scholars say, is a dramatic shift in power to nations of the developing world. Akinola’s Church of Nigeria, for example, has 17 million members, making it second only to the Church of England within the communion.
African Christian churches, which are often competing with Islam for adherents, are often very conservative on questions of family and sexuality, said Philip Jenkins, professor of religious studies and history at Pennsylvania State University.
The idea of same-sex unions is relatively new even in the West, Jenkins said, and “Nigerians and other Anglicans resent being told they need to change their beliefs and go along.”
But as the conflict plays out, more is at stake than the future of the Episcopal Church. Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians, among others, all have their own versions of the debate about the role of gays in religious life and whether scriptural texts should be considered sacred and fixed, or evolving. In May, bishops of the United Methodist Church decided to keep intact a policy adopted in 1972 that describes homosexual activity as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The issue is considered likely to surface again when the church’s top policymaking body meets next year.
In August, after an emotional debate, a national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to urge its bishops to refrain from defrocking gay and lesbian ministers in committed relationships, but rejected measures that would have allowed the ordination of non-celibate gay clergy. The assembly voted to defer proposals on ordaining gays and same-sex blessings to a task force that is expected to issue a statement on sexuality next year.
Bradley Schmeling is at the center of the Evangelical Lutheran debate. The pastor of an Atlanta congregation, Schmeling was removed from the Lutheran clergy roster in June after he told his bishop that he had entered into a relationship with another man. Despite Schmeling’s church trial and removal from the list of approved clergy, his congregation has chosen to keep him as its pastor.
Schmeling said he was disappointed the assembly did not change its policy on gay clergy but called the resolution on restraint a significant step. “What it means for gay and lesbian pastors all across the country is that they can be a little less afraid now that the church will file charges,” he said.
Judaism’s Conservative Movement has addressed similar issues. Last December, a rabbinical law panel in New York adopted contrasting opinions that essentially allowed individual synagogues to decide whether to ordain gay rabbis or allow same-sex commitment ceremonies.
As devout people on both sides of the theological chasm struggle over homosexuality, some scholars said the issue has proved the most intractable for American churches since slavery fractured many of the same denominations in the 19th century. Most, apart from the Southern Baptist Convention, eventually reunited.
The question, said the Pew Forum’s John C. Green, is whether the current battle will split the denominations as well. “In terms of potential consequences, this is very much a civil war, too,” he said.
SIDEBAR: A sampling of churches divided
Many religious denominations are struggling with issues involving homosexuality and the Bible. A sampling:
Roman Catholic Church
Does not allow practicing homosexual men to become priests, although men who have “overcome” homosexual impulses for more than three years may enter the priesthood. Rejects same-sex unions and gay marriage.
In the face of stiff opposition from other Anglicans overseas, American Episcopal bishops agreed last month not to authorize further blessings for same-sex unions and to use restraint in consecrating more gay bishops.
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Requires gay clergy to be celibate, since church officers must remain chaste if single. Allows the blessing of same-sex unions but only if they are deemed not equivalent to marriage, which the church does not allow.
United Methodist Church
Gays and lesbians can become pastors but must remain celibate. Rejects gay marriage and says same-sex ceremonies cannot be held in church buildings.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The church does not ordain practicing homosexuals but urges church leaders not to discipline gays in committed partnerships. Does not bless same-sex unions or marriages.
United Church of Christ
Although local congregations have the final say, the denomination allows the ordination of gay clergy and fully recognizes same-sex marriage.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Although the Mormon church does not have a separate ordained clergy, it opposes same-sex behavior, including gay marriage.
Allows the ordination of homosexual rabbis and same-sex commitment ceremonies.
Does not ordain gay rabbis and does not allow same-gender unions or marriages.
A rabbinical law panel last year adopted contrasting opinions on gays. One measure allows the ordination of gay rabbis and lets rabbis perform blessings for same-sex couples. But some panel members approved a measure maintaining prohibitions against gay rabbis and commitment rituals.
Source: Religionlink.org, Associated Press, Times research
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