Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Monday, June 19, 2006

Episcopal emergency

Members of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. have been plenty busy at their general convention the last week. Among other things,they elected the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as the denomination's presiding bishop (the first woman ever to hold the church's top spot) and discussed whether the Episcopal Church needs liturgies to honor departed pets.

But all this will likely be mere prelude to the big issue on the table: Whether the Episcopal Church will fully "repent" of its 2003 decision to elect an openly gay man as bishop.

The aftermath of that election threatens to tear apart the Episcopal church and its wider, worldwide body, the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church U.S.A. represents a fraction of the Anglican Communion's 77 million believers, the majority of whom now live in developing countries and widely see homosexuality as a sin. Though the Anglican Communion's various churches are only loosely tied and make decisions independently of one another, the 2003 election shocked and angered many worldwide church leaders, and they may kick the Episcopal Church out of the Communion if the Episcopal Church doesn't say sorry and, essentially, promise to not do such a thing again.

Over the next three days, the church will decide whether it will offer that apology -- and, if so, just how far that apology will go. Some Anglicans have said the church doesn't seem to be willing to go far enough to satisfy the Anglican Communion.

This is a big deal for a host of reasons: One, this debate foreshadows what's going on in mainline denominations across the country. Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans are also debating human sexuality, and many Christians are deeply torn over the issue. Some believe that accepting homosexuality is just plain contrary to God's will. Others say no, that denying gays and lesbians full church rights is the real sin. Both sides believe they're doing God's sacred work.

On a more pragmatic level, what happens over the next three days could lead to a literal and lawful split of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. We might see two Episcopal churches: the gay-friendly Episcopal Church and a new, more conservative body tied to the Anglican Communion. There would likely be messy squabbles over who owns church property and some public-relations posturing as to which body is the "real" Episcopal church -- battles that would likely play out locally.

If a split comes, Colorado Springs' Grace Church and St. Stephen's, the largest Episcopal church in the state with 2,000 members, would likely fracture off from the Episcopal Church and stay tied with the Anglican Communion. Its rector, the Rev. Donald Armstrong, has been a vocal critic of the church's 2003 decision.


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