ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Episcopal Church voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to open the door to consecrate more bishops who are openly gay, a move that is likely to send shock waves throughout the Anglican Communion, the global network of churches to which the Episcopal Church belongs.
By voting to affirm that “any ordained ministry” is open to gay men and lesbians, the Episcopal Church effectively ended what many regarded as a moratorium on ordaining gay bishops, which the church passed at its last convention three years ago.
The moratorium was adopted in what proved to be a largely unsuccessful effort to calm conservatives in the Anglican Communion, which has torn itself apart in the last six years since the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire first elected the communion’s first and only openly gay bishop, Bishop V. Gene Robinson. The battle over homosexuality in the Episcopal Church has been watched closely by other mainline Protestant churches. They are looking to the Episcopal Church as a bellwether that could foretell whether their denominations can survive the storm over homosexuality intact.
Many delegates to the church’s convention here characterized the action not as an overturning of the moratorium, but as simply an honest assertion of “who we are.” They note that the church, which claims about two million members, has hundreds of openly gay laypeople, priests and deacons, and that its democratic decision-making structures are charged with deciding who merits ordination.
“It’s not an attempt to fly in the face of the Anglican Communion,” said Bonnie Anderson, who as president of the House of Deputies, which represents laypeople and clergy members, is one of the church’s two top officers. “It’s an attempt to deepen relationships with the rest of the communion, because real relationships are built on authenticity.”
But some at the convention warned that the Episcopal Church could pay a price for snubbing its global partners.
Bishop Shannon S. Johnston, coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, who will take office on Oct. 1, said in an interview that he voted against it because “I thought we would be seen as uncooperative and not a team player in the Anglican Communion.”
Zack Brown, a youth delegate from the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, begged the House of Deputies just before their final vote, “Please don’t vote in a way that makes more conservatives feel the way I do now: like I’m the only one left.”
The vote in both houses was more than two-thirds in favor and one-third opposed or abstaining.
The House of Bishops also took up a measure that would create a liturgy to bless same-sex couples. Such blessings are already being done in many dioceses, without official sanction. “It is time for our church to be liberated from the hypocrisy under which it has been laboring,” Bishop Stacy Sauls of Lexington, Ky., told his fellow bishops on Tuesday.
The Episcopal Church acted despite a personal address at the start of the convention from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who as head of the Church of England is considered “first among equals” among the communion’s archbishops. “Along with many in the communion,” the archbishop said, “I hope and pray that there won’t be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart.”
The resolution passed Tuesday was written in a way that would allow dioceses to consider gay candidates to the episcopacy, but does not mandate that all dioceses do so. It also emphasizes that the Episcopal Church has “an abiding commitment” to the Anglican Communion.
It says that many gay men and lesbians are already ministering in the church and that, “God has called and may call such individuals, to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, and that God’s call to the ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church is a mystery which the church attempts to discern for all people through our discernment processes acting in accordance with the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church.”
Pamela Reamer Williams, a spokeswoman for Integrity USA, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the church, said: “The church has stated very clearly that all levels of the ministry in the Episcopal Church are open to the L.G.B.T. baptized. It is a change in the sense that it supersedes the effective moratorium.”
Conservative provinces in the Anglican Communion, especially some in Africa, broke their ties with the Episcopal Church after it consecrated Bishop Robinson.
The moratorium adopted three years ago urged Episcopal dioceses to restrain from consecrating bishops whose “manner of life” posed a challenge to the rest of the Anglican Communion. In fact, a few openly gay candidates were considered for election in the last three years, but none won sufficient support, and the moratorium was never tested.
In the end, the moratorium pleased no one: neither conservatives who observed that some in the church did not really intend to abide by it, nor liberals who saw it as a codification of discrimination and injustice to gay clergy members who otherwise were qualified to be considered as bishops. The moratorium also did little to forestall the fracturing both within the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. Conservatives in both bodies have formed their own alliances in the last three years, asserting that they represent the true Anglican tradition.
In the United States, four dioceses — Fort Worth; Pittsburgh; Quincy, Ill.; and San Joaquin, Calif. — have voted to split from the Episcopal Church (although some parishes within those dioceses elected to remain).
Last year, they joined with other disaffected parishes and groups that had splintered from the Episcopal Church over many years to form the “Anglican Church in North America.” That group held its first convention, in Texas, last month. They claim 100,000 members.
The new group says that Scripture clearly prohibits homosexual relationships. Church liberals, meanwhile, insist that the Anglican tent is large enough to tolerate multiple approaches.
The debates at the convention in Anaheim over the last few days have made it clear that the liberals increasingly have the upper hand within the Episcopal Church. At a debate over whether to develop formal rites for same-sex weddings, 50 people testified in favor and 6 against.
“It’s a clean sweep for the liberal agenda in the Episcopal Church,” said David Virtue, editor of VirtueOnline.org, a conservative Web site. “The orthodox are finished.”
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