The Episcopal Church's gay problem

A group of Virginia parishes secedes over same-sex marriage and a gay bishop.

Published December 18, 2006 8:59PM (EST)

Aw, hell. As has been widely anticipated, at least seven Episcopal parishes in Virginia have voted to sever ties with the Episcopal Church, and will go looking for a more conservative governing body that shares their hard-line views on same-sex unions and gay ministers. The move is effectively a vote of no confidence in presiding U.S. bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who's the first woman to head an Anglican church and who has expressed support for V. Gene Robinson, the trailblazing gay bishop of New Hampshire.

The breakup is expected to prompt a long legal battle over who gets to keep the dissident parishes' buildings and land, valued in the tens of millions of dollars.

The seven (and possibly eight, depending on what the parish of St. Paul's in Haymarket decides today) churches face an interesting conundrum. Robinson's consecration, Jefferts Schori's installation and certain parishes' blessing of same-sex marriages have led the dissident parishes to the conclusion that "the Episcopalian ship is in trouble," as the Rev. John Yates told the New York Times. But the Rev. Martyn Minns of the Falls Church told the Post that while the group of churches believes homosexuality is banned by Scripture, it doesn't believe homosexuality should be criminalized. Sort of a "you can do what you want, as long as you don't do it here -- oh, and you're probably going to hell" kind of a thing, I guess, and I suppose that's their prerogative. As for what's next, though, Yates told the Times, "We're climbing over the rails down to various little lifeboats. There's a lifeboat from Bolivia, one from Rwanda, another from Nigeria. Their desire is to help us build a new ship in North America, and design it and get it sailing." Trouble is, the Times notes that these other boats -- er, dioceses, may be quite a bit more conservative. Yates' and Minns' congregations are voting on "whether they want to report to the powerful archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, an outspoken opponent of homosexuality who supports legislation in his country that would make it illegal for gay men and lesbians to form organizations, read gay literature or eat together in a restaurant," the Times reports. The secessionist Virginia parishes are for the most part quite old -- George Washington served on the vestry of the Falls Church -- and I understand that they believe they're following Scripture. But aligning themselves with a guy who wants to deny basic rights to gays and lesbians seems like a terribly extreme way of pursuing that agenda.

Four other Virginia parishes and a diocese in San Joaquin, Calif., have recently voted to secede from the Episcopal Church, the Times reports, and at least two other parishes and six other dioceses are considering splintering off. And the situation stateside seems to parallel attempted conservative power grabs elsewhere -- the Times reports that the archbishop of Canterbury is "struggling to hold the communion together while facing a revolt on many fronts from emboldened conservatives. Last week, conservative priests in the Church of England warned him that they would depart if he did not allow them to sidestep liberal bishops and report instead to sympathetic conservatives." Still, Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh president Joan Gundersen suggests that in the U.S., the schism will ultimately be harder on the seceding parishes than on the larger church itself: "Every time one of these churches leaves, their voice becomes an even smaller minority," she said. "And I'm sorry to see that. One of the beliefs of the Episcopal Church has been how we can live together and worship together under widely varying interpretations of belief."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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