Move could deepen rift between U.S. church, Anglicans that began with Robinson’s election
SAN FRANCISCO What is left of unity in the Episcopal Church is at stake heading into a weekend election for bishop of California that sets up a major clash over gays’ role in the church.
Three of the seven candidates are openly gay, and choosing one of them to head the Diocese of California would further alienate Episcopal conservatives already feeling betrayed that the church approved a gay bishop three years ago. It could also fracture the strained relationship between America’s 2.3 million Episcopalians and their parent body, the worldwide Anglican Com-munion.
A vote against a gay bishop would likely preserve the fragile truce.
The Rev. Paul Zahl, dean of the conservative Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, likened the election of a gay bishop in California to “a terrorist bomb, which is timed to destroy a peace process.”
Anglicanism, which includes the U.S. Episcopal Church among its 77 million followers in 164 countries, has been torn over the issue of gay clergy for years.
In 2003, New Hampshire Episcopalians elected the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who has a longtime male partner, as their bishop. A year later, an international Anglican panel asked U.S. dioceses to stop installing bishops in same-sex relationships for now, and requested that the Episcopal Church show “regret” for the turmoil its actions had caused.
On Saturday, about 700 priests and lay people will gather for a special diocesan convention at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to elect a new bishop to replace the retiring Rev. William Swing.
Among the candidates they will consider will be two gay men the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe of San Francisco, and the Very Rev. Robert Taylor of Seattle and a lesbian, the Rev. Bonnie Perry of Chicago. All three live openly with same-sex partners.
The four other candidates are: the Rt. Rev. Mark Handley Andrus of Birmingham, Alabama; the Rev. Jane Gould of Lynn, Massachusetts; the Rev. Donald Schell of San Francisco; and Canon Eugene Taylor Sutton of Washington National Cathedral.
The delegates know their actions will be closely watched by Anglicans around the world. But conservative Canon Bill Atwood of the Ekklesia Society, an Episcopal aid network based in Carrollton, Texas, predicts the Californians will “totally ignore the consequences” of their actions.
“I don’t think there’s any question they’ll be compelled to elect a partnered gay,” Atwood said. “I think they’ve got a mistaken understanding of issues of justice. Huge portions of the Episcopal Church are theologically adrift.
“I’m not saying there isn’t religion, but it’s not the historic Christian faith.”
But the Rev. Susan Russell of Integrity, the national gay and lesbian Episcopal caucus, said the Diocese of California has no obligation to elect a
heterosexual as the Communion struggles to remain unified. She argued that a “radical conservative fringe” within Anglicanism is determined to bring about a split no matter what concessions the American church makes.
“For any elector to allow the current political climate in the global church to hamstring the Holy Spirit would be working against who we are when we’re at our best as a church,” Russell said.
The seven nominees spent much of April touring churches and meeting parishioners. They were asked not to give any interviews in the week before the election.
On Saturday, delegates will cast their ballots until one of the candidates gets a simple majority of the votes. If no winner is declared, voting will continue the following Saturday, May 13.
The winner cannot be consecrated without approval from the Episcopal church’s legislative body, the General Convention, which meets in June.
The Convention has a long history of deferring to dioceses’ choice of leadership, but the head of the denomination Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold warned last month it would create “definite difficulty” between Episcopalians and the rest of the Anglican Communion if California elects the church’s second openly gay bishop.
The Communion lacks an authoritative leader, someone who functions as the pope does for Roman Catholics, for example. Each province within the Anglican Communion can make its own decisions and Griswold, whose term ends later this year, has repeatedly expressed the desire to remain part of the Communion.
An Episcopal panel studying the issue proposed last month that dioceses use “very considerable caution” in electing bishops with same-sex partners, but it stopped short of a moratorium. That recommendation is among several the General Convention will consider at its meeting June 13-21 in Columbus, Ohio.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, May 5, 2006.