EPISCOPALIANS Will decisions on homosexuality end up splintering denomination?
A bishop opposed to same-sex unions said other issues need to be addressed.
With the nation's Episcopalians gathered in Minneapolis this week, they are likely to confirm their first openly gay bishop and to consider a service sanctifying same-sex unions.
A lot of Christians -- across the theological spectrum -- are holding their breath.
"Everyone from Mennonites to Catholics will be watching the Episcopalians," said Martin Marty, a retired professor of church history at the University of Chicago.
What happens in Minneapolis is likely to reverberate through American Christianity. The issue of homosexuality, in one form or another, has divided most of the nation's mainline denominations, including Methodists and Presbyterians. For more than a decade, it has provoked bruising battles at national gatherings such as the Episcopalians', sparking threats of splits -- although none has thus far materialized.
Partisans on both sides have a huge stake in these battles, but most church members wish the issue would just go away.
For Bishop John Howe, of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, the general convention, which runs today through Aug. 8, is the latest battleground in a struggle to move the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church, USA, toward a greater acceptance of homosexuality.
At the convention, Howe said, he will oppose same-sex unions, as well as the confirmation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson to serve as bishop of New Hampshire -- the first openly gay person to hold such a post.
"A bishop is called to be an example to the whole flock," Howe said. By voting for Robinson, "we would be giving tacit approval of this bishop's example." Confirming Robinson, he said, "will stretch the church further toward fracture."
So Howe is banding with other conservative bishops to fight such a move. Howe, a soft-spoken intellectual with a close-cropped silver beard, appears to be emerging -- almost against his will -- as one of the leaders of this effort.
"I feel sadness that the issue hangs over us," he said. "There are so many others we need to be addressing."
As the leader of 45,000 Episcopalians, Howe tends to be circumspect on controversial issues, choosing his words carefully and doling them out parsimoniously.
The changes in the Episcopal Church's views on homosexuality, he said, are "part of a Western world cultural revolution" that has put it at odds with other churches in the 79 million-member Anglican Communion. Much of the tension within the worldwide denomination runs along the equator, with conservative bishops in Africa, Latin America and southern Asia opposing liberalizing moves taken by Anglican and Episcopal bishops in the United Kingdom and North America.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham has been blessing same-sex unions since May. As a result, 15 of the Anglican Church's 38 top leaders around the world, called primates, have suspended or broken relations with the Canadian diocese.
There is concern that the same thing could happen to the Episcopal Church in the United States if the denomination confirms an openly gay man as bishop or approves the blessing of same-sex unions.
On July 15, Howe -- with more than 20 other conservative U.S. bishops -- signed a strongly worded open letter to leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion, decrying "church-rending innovations" and the "deteriorating situation within the Episcopal Church."
Some observers interpret that letter as a warning not to join any split in the denomination. Howe denies that interpretation, but he did meet with the other bishops from the United States and around the world last week in Virginia to plan a convention strategy.
About the same time, the Rev. Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA, released his own letter, addressed to the same leaders, pleading for understanding of the issues before the convention and asking that they not take hasty action if they disagree with the convention's decisions.
If there is a split in the Anglican Communion, conservative bishops in the United States have implied that their dioceses might leave the Episcopal Church, USA, and align with other conservatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America.