Gay Issue Looms over Episcopal Church

Bishops of the Episcopal Church are in New Orleans this week, tackling a job that may need a little divine intervention.

They are trying to remain progressive on issues about homosexuality and still avert a schism.

The 2-million-member church caused an uproar four years ago by consecrating an openly gay bishop. Now, the American church has a Sept. 30 deadline to placate the conservatives in the worldwide Anglican communion.

The clear majority of Episcopal bishops support consecrating openly gay bishops and many others already perform same-sex blessings. And yet, they met for hours in a downtown hotel, quibbling over the wording of a statement that might please conservatives.

It is a tough sell. Conservative Anglicans from Africa and South America, who represent the vast majority of the 77-million-member church worldwide, have essentially threatened to begin their own church.

At the end of the day, the bishops emerged with nothing decided. But Bishop J. Neil Alexander, of Atlanta, was optimistic that they would soon produce a winning document.

"My own feeling is the statement will be shaped in such a way that it will be well received by the leaders of the Anglican communion and also be well received by the majority of the members of the Episcopal Church," Alexander said.

That remains to be seen. According to several sources, the bishops have agreed on content that is unlikely to appease conservatives.

They will reportedly reiterate that they will show restraint in consecrating openly gay bishops, but they will not rule it out altogether.

They may say they will not officially perform same-sex blessings that are not authorized — yet, nearly a dozen dioceses openly permit them. And they will back a proposal that would let the presiding bishop appoint a few bishops to be ambassadors to the unhappy conservative congregations.

But that falls short of the independent oversight conservatives had wanted.

Robert Duncan, the bishop of Pittsburgh, was one of several conservatives who left the meeting early. He said this attempt would not avert a schism.

Duncan said the chasm has become so wide — not just on issues of homosexuality, but the interpretation of the Bible and the direction of the church — that the two sides have little in common.

"Those two understandings are so radically different that they're like two different gospels and two different churches," he said.

At least four dioceses are considering leaving the American church and aligning with African or Latin American bishops. Those include Duncan's in Pittsburgh, as well as, Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Ill., and San Joaquin, Calif. While more than 50 churches have left, no diocese has taken that step.

Will the church would ever accede to conservatives' demands and rethink its stance on gays in the church?

Bishop Jon Bruno, of Los Angeles, said the answer is no.

"Are we going to withdraw our support of gay and lesbian members of our church? No, we're not. They're fully enfranchised. Are we going to do anything that exacerbates the situation? No, we're waiting to see how our response will be received," Bruno said.

They are scheduled to vote on their response Tuesday, and the future of the Episcopal Church is dependent upon the outcome.

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