Episcopal Forum Tackles Role of Gays in Church

In the coming week, Episcopalians in the United States will once again debate the role of gays and lesbians in their church. Delegates are gathering for the denomination's general convention in Columbus, Ohio. They'll vote on whether to sanction same-sex unions and whether to apologize for electing an openly gay bishop. Jason de Rose of Chicago Public Radio reports.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. This week U.S. Episcopalians once again debate the role of gays and lesbians in their church. Delegates are gathering for the denomination's general convention in Columbus, Ohio. They'll be voting on whether to sanction same-sex unions, and three years after the consecration of an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire, delegates will be voting on whether to apologize for that. Chicago Public Radio's Jason de Rose reports.

JASON DE ROSE reporting:

In churches, the debate over gays and lesbians often comes down to how to read the Bible. On one side are Episcopalians like Don and Martha Werner(ph).

Mr. DON WERNER (Episcopalian): The Bible is the word of God. We need to follow it as it is written, that it can be interpreted literally, and therefore I have a problem with some of the things that are going on in the Episcopal church today.

Ms. MARTHA WARNER (Episcopalian): When you go away from the Bible, you lose the essence of what you're there for.

DE ROSE: Many Episcopalians throughout the U.S. agree with the Warners. On the other side are people like Sally Manning(ph).

Ms. SALLY MANNING (Episcopalian): My Anglican tradition says that I have to use tradition and the Bible and my reason to determine what my Christian faith means to me.

DE ROSE: And Manning believes these three elements tell her gays and lesbians make an important contribution to the life of her church. Both of these viewpoints will clash this week in Columbus. It's an issue congregations have been wrestling with for years.

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DE ROSE: Saint Marks Episcopal Church in Geneva, Illinois, was founded in 1868. It's the congregation Don and Martha Werner attend. This conservative, thousand-member congregation actively opposes gay bishops and same-sex blessings. Father Mark Tusken says the consecration of Gene Robinson jeopardizes the church's ability to grow in more conservative countries.

Father MARK TUSKEN (Saint Marks Episcopal Church, Geneva, Illinois): If we do decide to continue with the new theology, we will be choosing to walk separately from the rest of the worldwide Anglican communion, and at that point then there really will be a struggle to decide, well then what's the faithful expression of Anglicanism here in the United States?

DE ROSE: What Tusken is talking about is affiliating his congregation with a more conservative national church outside the U.S., such as the Anglican Church in Nigeria. Tusken says Christians today must consider not only the North American context but that of the Global South: Asia, South America and Africa.

Father TUSKEN: The real challenge, though, is that in the Global South, where you have Islam very much up against us, that there's a tension there for Christians that would endorse something that would be anathema to the Muslim community, and so the sexual issue has great ringing overtones in the Global South in a way that it might not here in Western Christendom.

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DE ROSE: Saint Mary's Episcopal parish in Park Ridge, Illinois, is one of the more liberal congregations in the dioceses of Chicago. Most of its 500 members, like Sally Manning, support the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church, even at the highest levels of leadership, and they oppose any apology for the election of Bishop Robinson. For Saint Mary's rector Jarrett Kerbel, this is a question of human rights and social justice.

Mr. JARRETT KERBEL (Rector, Saint Mary's Episcopal Church, Park Ridge, Illinois): It's always troubling to me when a majority chooses the destiny of a minority, chooses to call their suffering acceptable. There's a danger in choosing the sacrifices of other people.

DE ROSE: But sacrifice may not be necessary for the church to remain united. Chicago Bishop William Persell says despite what some conservatives believe, gay bishops aren't necessarily a church-dividing issue.

Bishop WILLIAM PERSELL (Diocese of Chicago): I voted for Gene Robinson's approval at the last convention. The bishop of rank in the Southern Sudan has told me he doesn't agree with my position, but that's not really his issue. He has many more serious issues to worry about, with people returning from exile, from trying to establish a peace after two decades of war, extreme poverty, and he wants to be partners with us in trying to rebuild that diocese.

DE ROSE: The votes regarding the role of gays and lesbians within the church are expected by Friday. For NPR News, I'm Jason de Rose in Chicago.

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