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Episcopalians Against Equality

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Don't look now, but Virginia is seceding again.

On Sunday nine Episcopal parishes in Virginia, including the one where George Washington served as a vestryman, announced that they had voted to up and leave the U.S. Episcopal Church to protest its increasingly equal treatment of homosexuals.

In 2003 an overwhelming majority of the nation's Episcopal bishops ratified the selection of a gay bishop by the New Hampshire diocese. This past June the church's general convention elevated Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to the post of presiding U.S. bishop. Jefferts Schori is the first woman to head a national branch of the Anglican Church. Worse yet, she has allowed the blessing of same-sex couples within her diocese (which includes the ever theologically innovative Las Vegas).

Whether it was the thought of a woman presiding over God's own country club or of gays snuggling under its eaves, it was all too much for a distinct minority of Episcopalians. The dissident parishes in the Virginia diocese contain only about 5 percent of the state's parishioners. But it's the church the defectors have latched on to that makes this schism news.

In slamming the door on their American co-religionists, the two largest parishes, which are in Fairfax City and Falls Church, also announced their affiliation with the Episcopal Church of Nigeria. The presiding Nigerian archbishop, Peter Akinola, promotes legislation in his country that would forbid gays and lesbians to form organizations or to eat together in restaurants and that would send them to jail for indulging in same-gender sexual activity. Akinola's agenda so touched the hearts of the Northern Virginia faithful that they anointed him, rather than Jefferts Schori, as their bishop.

Peer pressure played a role, too. Explaining the decision to leave the American church, Vicki Robb, a Fairfax parishioner and Alexandria public relations exec, told The Post's Bill Turque and Michelle Boorstein that the church's leftward drift has made it "kind of embarrassing when you tell people that you're Episcopal." It must be a relief to finally have an archbishop who doesn't pussyfoot around when gays threaten to dine in public.

The alliance of the Fairfax Phobics with Archbishop Restaurant Monitor is just the latest chapter in the global revolt against modernity and equality and, more specifically, in the formation of the Orthodox International. The OI unites frequently fundamentalist believers of often opposed faiths in common fear and loathing of challenges to ancient tribal norms. It has featured such moving tableaus as the coming together in the spring of 2005 of Israel's chief rabbis, the deputy mufti of Jerusalem, and leaders of Catholic and Armenian churches, burying ancient enmities to jointly condemn a gay pride festival. The OI's founding father was none other than Pope John Paul II, who spent much time and energy endeavoring to reconcile various orthodox Christian religions and whose ecumenism prompted him to warn the Anglicans not to ordain gay priests.

John Paul also sought to build his church in nations of the developing world where traditional morality and bigotry, most especially on matters sexual, were in greater supply than in secular Europe and the increasingly egalitarian United States, and more in sync with the Catholic Church's inimitable backwardness. Now America's schismatic Episcopalians are following in his footsteps -- traditionalists of the two great Western hierarchical Christian churches searching the globe for sufficiently benighted bishops.

In recent years Anglican churches have experienced their greatest growth in the developing world, which could tilt the entire global Anglican Communion toward more traditionalist norms. Only 13 of the 38 national churches within the communion ordain women as priests; only three -- the United States, New Zealand and Canada -- ordain women as bishops.

The American church, by contrast, has largely paralleled the transformation of Rockefeller Republicans into liberal, Democratic secularists. The old joke of New York politicos was that Jews had the incomes of Episcopalians but voted like Puerto Ricans. Now it's the Episcopal prelates who are voting like Puerto Ricans, or, more precisely, like liberal Jews. Some traditionalists fear the church isn't really theistic anymore. The comforting middle ground of the church of yore -- affirming the equality of some, not discussing the equality of others -- has eroded as the demands of women and gays and lesbians could no longer be dismissed.

The irony is that the Episcopal Church owes its existence directly to the American Revolution; it broke away from the Church of England during the war and was reborn as a distinctly American entity between 1784 and 1789. Fully two-thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were active or (like Washington) nominal Anglicans, and, having repudiated the political authority of the king of England, they could scarcely have gone on affirming his ecclesiastical authority.

The founders of the church believed, within the context of their time, that all men were created equal. Today's defectors have thought it over in the context of our own time, and decided that they're not.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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