The former archbishop of Canterbury stepped in yesterday to preside over the confirmation of more than 300 Virginia Episcopalians whose parishes did not want them to be confirmed by their own bishop after his vote last year to appoint the denomination's first openly gay bishop.
In two evening ceremonies at Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax City, the Rev. George L. Carey, who retired nearly two years ago as the 103rd archbishop of Canterbury, laid hands on hundreds of adults and children from 10 Northern Virginia parishes, confirming them as Christians and members of the Episcopal Church.
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The confirmations would have been performed by the Rev. Peter James Lee, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Lee said he invited Carey to come to Truro yesterday, at the end of a three-week tour of the United States, in an effort to accommodate those in the diocese who disagree with him.
Last year's election of a gay priest, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire created deep divisions in the Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church, and in the Virginia diocese, the country's largest with more than 195 churches from Fairfax to Richmond.
Lee's vote for Robinson -- cast, he said in a letter to Virginia Episcopalians, to honor the wishes of the church in New Hampshire despite his personal misgivings about ordaining gay priests -- brought protests in some of his parishes. Some withheld their annual donations to the church, an estimated $900,000 this year, and asked that Lee abstain from performing confirmations.
Lee said Carey's visit marked the first time that someone other than Lee's two assistant bishops has been asked to substitute for him. Speaking to reporters before the services, Carey stressed a need to open a "constructive dialogue" within the church without letting the issue of homosexuality overwhelm other, more important ones.
"We've got to keep our eye on the ball: the mission of the church in a very needy world," Carey said.
The Rev. Martyn Minns, Truro's rector and a leader of an effort to form a new national network of conservative parishes, said it was his idea to invite Carey for the confirmation services. He said the archbishop's presence last night was an enormous encouragement to the participating congregations.
"There's a mixture of emotions for all of us," Minns said, adding that the confirmations are both "an occasion of great celebration and a sign that the Episcopal Church is broken. It's a painful reminder of our alienation from the ministry of our own bishop. It would be nice not to be in this situation, but we are. . . . Bishop Lee is sincere, but I believe sincerely wrong."
The Rev. John A. M. Guernsey, rector at All Saints' Church in Dale City, one of the parishes participating in last night's ceremony, said his parishioners principally were there to proclaim their commitment to Christ.
"This is not about the bishop or church politics," Guernsey said. But he went on to say that "clearly, the presence of [Carey] standing and identifying with us in Virginia is a great encouragement to us.
"This is not a protest. But it is a sign of the deep rift in our diocese and the Episcopal Church over the authority of scripture. . . . There is a great deal of pain and grief over what has taken place," he said.
Throughout the evening, Carey prayed over those seeking confirmation -- the oldest in their eighties -- asking God to strengthen them as they made witness of their faith. His sermon, short and laced with humor, made no mention of the controversy. Carey said only that he was there at the behest of his friends Lee and Minns.
Tom Heard, 45, a member of the Falls Church in Falls Church, said he was there to reaffirm his faith after an absence from the church. He said it was an accident of timing that Carey was presiding. "I'm not sure how I would have felt about Lee," he said, adding that he would have consulted with his parish leaders had Lee been presiding.
Earlier, Carey told reporters his visit might serve as a model for other dioceses experiencing division over the issue. Lee, who has been a bishop in Virginia for more than 20 years and now finds himself unwelcome at some churches, said the divide has been particularly painful for him.
"I think of myself as an orthodox, committed Christian, and a great, vast majority of our clergy are," Lee said in a telephone interview. "People differ on the place of gay and lesbian people in our common life. I respect the differences people hold, but I think they are differences that can be held together within a common faith."
In February, Virginia Episcopalians voted to set up a year-long "reconciliation commission" to examine ways of maintaining unity in the face of deep theological differences over the church's stance on homosexuality. The vote had wide support -- a sign, many said, that they did not want their differences to lead to a split.
"I count the clergy as colleagues and friends," Lee said. "This is very much a family fight. It's like gathering around a family table at Thanksgiving and squabbling when there are strong differences. But my point is, it's important to stay at the table and come home for Thanksgiving."