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Move to Allow Ordination Of Gay Bishops Stirs Debate

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009

Anglicans in Northern Virginia were divided yesterday over a decision by the U.S. wing of the church to allow for the ordination of gay bishops.

The Rev. Martyn Minns of Fairfax City, the leader of a group of conservative congregations that broke three years ago from the U.S. Episcopal Church, said he has been talking to church leaders who have remained in the fold but are struggling with the decision about ordination.

"I think the number of churches leaving could very well change because of this," Minns said.

The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, who will become bishop of the Diocese of Virginia on Oct. 1, disagrees.

Those inclined to leave the church have done so, Johnston said. "Things are the same now as it was a week ago. Our church's witness is the same now as before."

The resolution passed overwhelmingly Tuesday night at the church's national convention in Anaheim, Calif. The wording addresses "gays and lesbians in lifelong committed relationships," saying that "God has called and may call such individuals to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church."

The decision replaces a resolution from 2006 that urged Episcopal leaders not to elect gay bishops in an attempt to defuse tensions.

Bishop Peter J. Lee, whom Johnston is replacing in Virginia, voted for the resolution. So did the diocese's suffragan bishop, David C. Jones. Johnston voted no -- not because he disagreed with the resolution, he said, but because of concerns that it would further roil the rocky relationship between the U.S. Episcopal Church and its Anglican brethren in other countries.

Since the openly gay V. Gene Robinson was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003, the issue of ordaining homosexuals has divided the Anglican Communion, a loose affiliation of 77 million people. A number of parishes and dioceses have left the 2.3 million member Episcopal Church and have become affiliated with overseas branches of the Anglican Communion.

Last month, some conservatives who left the Episcopal Church over issues of Scripture and sexuality formed the Anglican Church in North America.

Northern Virginia has been one of the most contentious battlegrounds. Several churches have become mired in legal issues after congregations that voted to break from the Episcopal Church sought to keep church properties worth tens of millions of dollars.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the preeminent Anglican clergyman, has said that legislation rehashing the issue of ordaining gay clergy could put the communion in "grave peril." Church representatives at the Anaheim convention, which ends tomorrow, are debating whether to create liturgical rites to bless same-sex unions.

But it is hard to say what effect the controversy will have on the typical churchgoer.

"I think for many in the local churches, they don't like or understand the conflict," said William Sachs, an Episcopal scholar and author in Richmond. "For them, the local church is supposed to be a place of sanity. So what may happen is simply the diminishing power of the national church as people lose interest in its continued fights."

For Sandra Kirkpatrick, whose church in Heathsville, Va., was torn apart over the conflict, the vote in Anaheim probably won't change much. Since her congregation split, members sympathetic to having gay clergy created a Sunday worship service. Congregants met in borrowed space at a nearby Methodist church and later moved to a member's home.

"It's been a tough issue for many," she said. "I think there are a lot of people out there who want a resolution, but it doesn't seem like it's going to come anytime soon."

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