Va. Episcopalians Struggle With Possibility of Schism

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 28, 2006

Members of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia conclude their annual convention today in Richmond amid growing fears that continuing differences over the 2003 consecration of an openly homosexual bishop will prompt some conservative parishes to withdraw from the diocese.

No parish is threatening to depart imminently. But much depends on the outcome of the 2.3-million member denomination's national convention in June. That assembly is likely to see fierce debate over homosexuality, scriptural interpretation and the importance of American Episcopalians staying in tune with the more conservative views of their larger, worldwide community of Anglicans.

The Virginia diocese has been roiled since Bishop Peter James Lee, who lives in Richmond, angered traditionalists by voting for the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson.

These emotions were evident in a recent letter from the vestry of The Falls Church, a conservative parish, to Lee, warning that he risked being harshly judged by God for his stand.

And in a sign that the dispute could deeply alter how the diocese relates to its 190-plus parishes, a Lee-appointed committee representing both the diocese and the conservative faction has been discussing alternative financial and pastoral arrangements for dissatisfied parishes.

Church members on both sides say they hope no schism will occur. But in recent interviews, several voiced pessimism about the uncertainty facing the 90,000-member Episcopal diocese, the largest in the nation.

"I don't know what the numbers are, but I think that there is a significant chance that if the general convention [in June] doesn't go their way, [some conservative parishes] will feel compelled to leave" the diocese, said Russell Randle, a member of Alexandria's Christ Church. He opposed Robinson's consecration but rejects leaving the diocese.

The Rev. Martyn Minns, rector of Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax City, a leading conservative church, said that "unless the diocese of Virginia moves in a different direction, it's hard to see how [conservative] congregations can survive in that setting."

He added that the June convention "would be a key dividing point."

The rector of The Falls Church, the Rev. John Yates, said he believed that American Episcopalians and their Anglican brethren -- who widely reject Robinson's consecration -- have already separated "in spirit."

Noting that one conservative parish has left the diocese, diocesan spokesman Patrick Getlein called the possibility that others might follow "very serious."

In November, the 90-member South Riding Church in Loudoun County formally severed its ties with the diocese and joined the Anglican Church of Uganda. Lee responded by removing its rector, the Rev. Phil Ashley.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company