Episcopal Church Leaders Discuss Differences

Six high-ranking bishops of the Episcopal Church begin a three-day meeting in New York to address growing divisions within the 2.4 million-member American church. They'll talk about the election of gay bishops and the sanctioning of same-sex marriages.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Several leading bishops of the Episcopal Church are in New York today to discuss a deepening rift over church doctrine and homosexuality. The disagreement has threatened to divide the church's nearly two and a half million members. Some conservative dioceses have already distanced themselves from the American church.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN: Reverend John Yates and his congregation at the Falls Church in Virginia are embarking on a 40-day period of fasting and prayer. It's meant to help them decide whether to sever or loosen their ties with the mainstream Episcopal Church, a church they feel is moving in the wrong direction.

Reverend JOHN YATES (Falls Church, Virginia): We feel torn. I myself don't see a really good alternative place for us to go to. It's not so much that I'm thinking about leaving the Episcopal family, but I do feel the Episcopal Church has left us.

MARTIN: That's the sentiment in dozens of congregations that are grappling with what they call a painful split in the church over gay rights, the role of women in the church, and what they see as an increasingly liberal interpretation of the Bible.

Those divisions have been growing since 2003, when the national church approved the appointment of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in New Hampshire, as bishop. For some the breaking point came this summer, when the National Episcopal Convention elected its first female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. She supports the appointment of gay and lesbian bishops.

After that, seven dioceses voted to disassociate themselves from the American church, and instead they want to be put under the oversight of the global Anglican Church.

They haven't turned their back on the Episcopal Church completely, but they are close. Jack Iker is the bishop of the Fort Worth diocese in Texas.

Bishop JACK IKER (Fort Worth, Texas Diocese): Well, I think that we may well be at that point where there are irreconcilable differences in theology and church discipline and so on. Then perhaps the best thing to do is say, how can we have an amicable divorce?

MARTIN: But Bishop Robinson and other leaders say keeping the church together is essential and possible.

Bishop GENE ROBINSON (Diocese of New Hampshire): There is room for all of us. I want all of those people in my church. The question is, do they want me in their church? Is this church going to be a church that cares more about purity, and therefore wants to expel those who disagree on certain issues, or is it going to be about the inclusive love of God?

MARTIN: Peter James Lee is the bishop of the diocese of Virginia and will serve as the moderator for the meetings this week in New York. He says these talks are important because the debate isn't just about gay rights, but the founding principles of the church itself.

Bishop PETER JAMES LEE (Diocese of Virginia): Historically in the Episcopal Church we've had individual congregations, individual dioceses, that have had very different theological emphases and yet have been united in a common faith that puts scripture at the center. I think those are the things that are now in some peril, because our capacity to live with differences is being questioned.

MARTIN: The meeting will include both liberal and conservative bishops, and while they aren't expected to make any final decisions, Bishop Peter Lee says it's the first step in a critical conversation.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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