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Anglican-Episcopal gay dispute may affect other churches

October 27, 2003

NEW YORK — The fight over homosexuality in the international Anglican Communion and its American branch, the Episcopal Church, isn't just an internal squabble.

It could permanently alter the Anglicans' relationship with Catholic and Orthodox Christianity and affect U.S. Protestant denominations that also are struggling with their policies on gay relationships.

Last week in London, top leaders of the world's 77 million Anglicans reaffirmed their opposition to gay sex and warned that the Americans' planned consecration of an openly gay bishop November 2 will "tear the fabric" of the faith internationally. In the United States, conservatives are threatening to quit the Episcopal Church over its toleration of gay clergy and same-sex couples.

Other denominations are watching with concern as the situation unfolds.

"Ecumenically, we're on new turf here," says the Rev. William Rusch, referring to the long-running quest for unity among Roman Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox.

Rusch, organizer of a 2005 North American ecumenical conference, says homosexuality "is certainly more than an issue of justice or democracy" because many Christians believe it touches key theological issues.

For conservatives, who cite Scriptural admonitions against homosexual acts, the authority of the Bible is at stake.

The retired world Anglican leader, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, said this week that the approval of Robinson by last summer's Episcopal convention is "an ecumenical scandal." Orthodox reactions undergird his assessment: -Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh said Robinson's supporters are betraying Christianity's one "source of truth, the Bible in the holy tradition of the church" and declared that Orthodoxy's official talks with the Episcopal Church are "defunct." Says another longtime Orthodox participant in the discussions, the Rev. Paul Schneirla: "I cannot imagine going on." -The bishops who head North America's nine Orthodox branches jointly lamented that Christianity's 2,000-year tradition on marriage is being "questioned, challenged or denied" in society and in certain "faith communities" (politely avoiding mention of the Episcopalians).

Roman Catholic leaders also have shown displeasure in various ways:

  • A Catholic bishop withdrew permission for the Episcopal Diocese of Florida to use one of his churches for a ceremony because the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church planned to participate. (The presiding bishop later withdrew.)

  • At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II told Carey's successor, Archbishop Rowan Williams, that "new and serious difficulties have arisen on the path to unity." The pope said the problems "extend to essential matters of faith and morals."

  • The Vatican's doctrinal overseer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sent warm greetings to this month's Dallas rally of 2,700 conservatives planning a break with the Episcopal Church.

    Still, the Rev. J. Robert Wright of New York's General Theological Seminary, a veteran Episcopal ecumenist, takes heart that this month's Catholic-Episcopal dialogue session occurred as scheduled - even though a key Catholic bishop said the Episcopal actions will have "serious implications" for the talks.

    "I was quite relieved at that, frankly," Wright says. He thinks accord among Christians on gay issues is possible, but he's thinking long term -perhaps 50 years down the road.

    The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine, a conservative Catholic long engaged in ecumenical matters, said Episcopal actions won't "slow down or dilute the commitment of the Catholic Church to work for full communion with all Christians, Anglicans included."

    However, Neuhaus sees a "big pothole in the road" for the world Catholic-Anglican talks, among the most fruitful of such negotiations. His reasoning: The Anglican Communion could dissolve into factions and even if it doesn't, Catholics can't be certain whether Anglicans speak with a single voice.

    Within other U.S. Protestant denominations, the Episcopal quagmire also has implications.

    Canon David C. Anderson, whose American Anglican Council is leading the conservative Episcopalians' charge, thinks his denomination's struggle could weaken pro-gay efforts in other mainline churches.

    "If they see the Episcopal Church truly shipwreck, this will give them pause about going down the same road," he says.

    But a conservative leader in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Rev. Parker Williamson, fears the opposite. He thinks Robinson's victory "was a great encouragement to those who would like to see endorsement of homosexual behavior in our denomination." He says the Episcopal and Presbyterian situations "are quite parallel."

    The Anglican Council's Dallas rally all but overshadowed a simultaneous meeting for 250 of Williamson's Presbyterian Coalition allies.

    That meeting featured a bombshell speech by Kansas attorney Robert Howard, former chairman of the Presbyterian Lay Committee.

    Howard said Presbyterians should consider a "gracious separation" into two denominations, because conservatives and liberals have "irreconcilable differences" on homosexuality and other issues. Howard even offered a four-year plan on just how to divide up the Presbyterians' 11,000 local congregations and assets. þSapa-AP

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