In Bay Area, Diocese May Elect Gay Bishop

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006

Episcopalians in San Francisco say it's no big deal. They have had openly gay clergy for more than 30 years. So when they elect a new bishop today, they say, the winner's sexuality will not be the main issue -- even if it could cause a schism in the already strained relations between U.S. Episcopalians and a majority of their co-religionists around the world.

"This election is not going to be decided around issues of human sexuality," said the Rev. John Kirkley, rector of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco and president of Oasis/California, a ministry to gay Episcopalians. "Here in the diocese, we don't carry the same angst about this that other parts of the church do. . . . It's not a big, scary issue for us."

The election of a new bishop in the Bay Area, however, is a scary matter in many parts of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, the worldwide family of churches to which the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church USA belongs. Since 2003, when the New Hampshire diocese chose V. Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in Anglican history, conservative Anglicans have urged the U.S. church to apologize, repent and -- above all -- not do it again.

Mathematically, at least, there is now a nearly 50-50 chance that it will happen again. Three of the seven candidates for the Bay Area's bishop live openly with same-sex partners. Two are gay men, the Rev. Michael Barlowe of San Francisco and the Rev. Robert V. Taylor of Seattle. One is a lesbian, the Rev. Bonnie Perry of Chicago.

Today, about 400 clergy members and 300 lay delegates from Bay Area congregations will gather at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral to elect a successor to the retiring Bishop William E. Swing. The winner will be subject to confirmation by the Episcopal Church's general convention in Columbus, Ohio, in June.

While remaining officially neutral, Episcopal Church leaders have acknowledged the importance of the election. The church's presiding bishop, Frank T. Griswold, told a British newspaper that the California diocese "needs to respect the sensibilities of the larger communion" and predicted that it "will note what is going on in the life of the church and make a careful and wise decision."

Last month, a special commission of Episcopal clergy and laity also urged the U.S. church to "exercise very considerable caution" before consecrating any more bishops "whose manner of life presents a challenge" to the wider communion.

Conservatives' warnings have been less restrained. The reaction to another "non-celibate homosexual" bishop would be "outrage, absolute outrage internationally," said the Rev. David C. Anderson, head of the American Anglican Council, an association of about 300 traditionalist U.S. parishes.

He noted that the primates of 22 of the Anglican Communion's 38 provinces have declared "broken" or "impaired" relations with the Episcopal Church since Robinson's election. If a second gay bishop is elected and approved, he predicted, either the Archbishop of Canterbury will "disinvite" the U.S. church from the communion's meetings, or a majority of the communion's other provinces will refuse to attend, producing a full-blown schism.

National gay rights groups are staying out of the fray. "We're saying it's up to them. It's California's call," said the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins of Rochester, N.Y., a past president of Integrity, a group that promotes equal treatment of gay men and lesbians in the church.

Bay Area parishioners, meanwhile, have shown relatively little interest in the candidates' sexuality. The subject barely came up at a series of question-and-answer forums with the candidates last month, according to Kirkley, who moderated two of the sessions.

One reason, he said, is that "all the candidates are essentially on the same page on these issues. They all support the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our church, and will work hard to maintain relationships in the larger Anglican Communion and seek opportunities for reconciliation."

The burning issues for the local church, he said, are multicultural ministry and the health of congregations. "People have been threatening schisms in our church since we started ordaining women" in 1976, he said. "This is not a new threat. It's certainly a tiresome one."

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