Episcopal Rift Drawing Near Point of Revolt
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
For about 30 years, the Episcopal Church has been one big unhappy family. Under one roof there were female bishops and male bishops who would not ordain women. There were parishes that celebrated gay weddings and parishes that denounced them; theologians sure that Jesus was the only route to salvation, and theologians who disagreed.
Now, after years of threats, the family is breaking up.
As many as eight conservative Episcopal churches in Virginia are expected to announce today that their parishioners have voted to cut their ties with the Episcopal Church. Two are large, historic congregations that minister to the Washington elite and occupy real estate worth a combined $27 million, which could result in a legal battle over who keeps the property.
In a twist, these wealthy American congregations are essentially putting themselves up for adoption by Anglican archbishops in poorer dioceses in Africa, Asia and Latin America, who share conservative theological views about homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture with the breakaway Americans.
“The Episcopalian ship is in trouble,” said the Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church, one of the two large Virginia congregations, where George Washington served on the vestry. “So we’re climbing over the rails down to various little lifeboats. There’s a lifeboat from Bolivia, one from Rwanda, another from Nigeria. Their desire is to help us build a new ship in North America, and design it and get it sailing.”
Together, these Americans and their overseas allies say they intend to form a new American branch that would rival or even supplant the Episcopal Church in the worldwide Anglican Communion, a confederation of national churches that trace their roots to the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, is now struggling to hold the communion together while facing a revolt on many fronts from emboldened conservatives. Last week, conservative priests in the Church of England warned him that they would depart if he did not allow them to sidestep liberal bishops and report instead to sympathetic conservatives.
In Virginia, the two large churches are voting on whether they want to report to the powerful archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, an outspoken opponent of homosexuality who supports legislation in his country that would make it illegal for gay men and lesbians to form organizations, read gay literature or eat together in a restaurant. Archbishop Akinola presides over the largest province in the 77-million-member Anglican Communion; it has more than 17 million members, dwarfing the Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million.
If all eight Virginia churches vote to separate, the Diocese of Virginia, the largest Episcopal diocese in the country, will lose about 10 percent of its 90,000 members. In addition, four churches in Virginia have already voted to secede, and two more are expected to vote soon, said Patrick N. Getlein, secretary of the diocese.
Two weeks ago, the entire diocese in San Joaquin, Calif., voted to sever its ties with the Episcopal Church, a decision it would have to confirm in a second vote next year. Six or more American dioceses say they are considering such a move.
In the last three years, since the Episcopal Church consecrated V. Gene Robinson, a gay man who lives with his partner, as bishop of New Hampshire, about three dozen American churches have voted to secede and affiliate with provinces overseas, according to The Episcopal News Service.
However, the secession effort in Virginia is being closely watched by Anglicans around the world because so many churches are poised to depart simultaneously. Virginia has become a central stage, both for those pushing for secession and for those trying to prevent it.
The Diocese of Virginia is led by Bishop Peter James Lee, the longest-serving Episcopal bishop and a centrist who, both sides agree, has been gracious to the disaffected churches and worked to keep them in the fold.
Bishop Lee has made concessions other bishops would not. He has allowed the churches to keep their seats in diocesan councils, even though they stopped contributing to the diocesan budget in protest. When some of the churches refused to have Bishop Lee perform confirmations in their parishes, he flew in the former archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. George Carey, a conservative evangelical, to take his place.
“Our Anglican tradition has always been a very large tent in which people with different theological emphases can live together,” Bishop Lee said in a telephone interview. “I’m very sorry some in these churches feel that this is no longer the case for them. It certainly is their choice and their decision. No one is forcing them to do this.”
The Diocese of Virginia is also home to the Rev. Martyn Minns, a main organizer in the global effort by conservative Anglicans to ostracize the Episcopal Church. Mr. Minns is the priest in charge of Truro Church, the second of the two historic Virginia parishes now voting on secession.
Anglican rules and traditions prohibit bishops from crossing geographical boundaries to take control of churches or priests not in their territory. So Archbishop Akinola and his American allies have tried to bypass that by establishing a branch of the Nigerian church in the United States, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Archbishop Akinola has appointed Mr. Minns as his key “missionary bishop” to spread the gospel to Americans on his behalf.
Mr. Minns and other advocates of secession have suggested to the voters that the convocation arrangement has the blessing of the Anglican hierarchy. But on Friday, the Anglican Communion office in London issued a terse statement saying the convocation had not been granted “any official status within the communion’s structures, nor has the archbishop of Canterbury indicated any support for its establishment.”
The voting in Virginia, however, was already well under way, with ballot boxes open for a week starting last Sunday. Church leaders say they need 70 percent of the voters to approve the secession for it to take effect.
If the vote is to secede, the churches and the diocese will fight to keep ownership of Truro Church, in Fairfax, and The Falls Church, in Falls Church, Va., a city named for the church.
Henry D. W. Burt, a member of the standing committee of the Virginia Diocese, grew up in The Falls Church and recently urged members not to secede. He said in an interview: “We’re not talking about Class A office space in Arlington, Va. We’re talking about sacred ground.”
Neither side says it wants to go to court over control of the church property, but both say the law is on their side.
At one of the four Virginia parishes that has already voted to secede, All Saints Church in Dale City, the tally was 402 to 6. But that church had already negotiated a settlement to rent its property from the diocese for $1 each year until it builds another church.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, said in an e-mail response to a request for an interview that such splits reflect a polarized society, as well as the “anxiety” and “discomfort” that many people feel when they are asked to live with diversity.
“The quick fix embraced in drawing lines or in departing is not going to be an ultimate solution for our discomfort,” she said.
Soon, Bishop Schori herself will become the issue. Archbishop Akinola and some other leaders of provinces in developing countries have said they will boycott their primates’ meeting in Tanzania in February unless the archbishop of Canterbury sends a second representative for the American conservatives.
“It’s a huge amount of mess,” said the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, who is aligned with the conservatives. “As these two sides fight, a lot of people in the middle of the Episcopal Church are exhausted and trying to hide, and you can’t. When you’re in a family and the two sides are fighting, it affects everybody.”