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US Episcopals divided over homosexuality

October 20, 2003

LONDON — U.S. Episcopalians who oppose plans to consecrate the first openly gay bishop next month said Friday they will form an independent network of conservative churches, even as Anglican leaders try to find ways to ease tensions. A split in the American church appears inevitable.

Evangelicals have grown alienated from their denomination over three decades of debate about homosexuality and also are angered that some Episcopal bishops have been allowing blessing ceremonies for gay couples.

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, a leading U.S. evangelical, said he and other conservatives feel they have enough support from Anglican Communion leaders - called primates - to move forward with a realignment of the Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of Anglicanism.

The 37 primates concluded a two-day emergency summit on homosexuality Thursday by warning that the Rev. V. Gene Robinson's scheduled consecration Nov. 2 as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire will "tear the fabric" of their global association of churches.

Robinson said in a statement Thursday that he will not give up the position.

The leaders acknowledged they had no power to directly intervene in the U.S. denomination since each Anglican province is self-governing, but they did ask all the churches in the 77 million-member communion to make "adequate provision" for members who disagree with ordaining gays.

Liberals said the statement was favorable for the church, because it contained no formal rebuke of Robinson's election and did not create a separate structure for conservatives.

But evangelicals said the wording signaled they can separate from Episcopal leaders and remain within Anglicanism. Conservatives began this process two weeks ago in Dallas, where 2,700 traditionalists, organized by the American Anglican Council, gathered to discuss strategy.

"We could not have asked for a better description of what we wanted," Duncan said. "We're beginning to form a network so that we can operate together. There are parishes in every state in the union that would want to be allied with and provided for by a bishop that they believe is teaching the faith. They would not want to be part of a diocese where same-sex blessings take place." Duncan said conservatives met Friday morning with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the communion, to discuss their plans.

U.S. conservatives also will share ideas with like-minded Canadian bishops at a meeting this month, Duncan said. The Diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, British Columbia, has authorized blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions and was a topic of the primates' meeting.

The head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, was returning Friday to the United States and could not be reached for comment, said Dan England, a national Episcopal spokesman. But England said Griswold was "concerned about losing the conservative voice" in the denomination of 2.4 million people.

"He thinks it makes the church poorer," England said.

A walkout would likely also spark costly legal battles over who owns billions of dollars of church property and other assets.

Departing conservatives want to hold onto parish buildings but they expect a fight from national leaders.

After Griswold emerged from the primates' meeting Thursday night, he said he intended to be in New Hampshire for Robinson's consecration - but he said "anything could happen" before then.

Asked if he would urge Robinson to withdraw, Griswold said: "I might do many things."

However, the Rev. Peter Moore, an evangelical and head of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, said a split will occur even if Robinson stands down. He noted that the U.S. church allows bishops to decide whether to permit same-sex blessings in their dioceses and no one expects that policy to change.

"I think the atmosphere of distrust between conservatives and liberals, for want of a better term, is so great at this point, I really can't see our getting together," Moore said in a phone interview. "I think this is a church-breaking issue." – Sapa-AP

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