Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4 Feb 2006

A house divided

Episcopal flocks draw a line over the acceptance of gays

Frank Bentayou
Plain Dealer Reporter

 
Les Corrington attended St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Bay Village for half a century.

The tall, slender 88-year-old said he recently looked into his heart and decided on a change.

On the advice of church rector the Rev. James Tasker and the 12-member vestry, or board of trustees, Corrington and most fellow parishioners voted in November to shift allegiance from Episcopal to Anglican.

More than 20 other churches in the United States did likewise, including three others in Northeast Ohio.

Leaders and clergy in the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church, including the Rev. Tracey Lind, rector of Trinity Church in Cleveland, have expressed hope for reconciliation. But whether the jagged rift along theological and ideological lines ever heals is a matter of endless speculation.

Lind said she invites St. Barnabas and other congregations that have pulled away to put aside their differences and "return to the Episcopal fold."

But Tasker, 62, and many congregants said they see that as unlikely. At a recent Sunday service, the 140 or so attending showed no signs of regret.

"I don't know if we'll ever unite," said Corrington, neatly dressed in tie and jacket. He's willing to shuck nearly a lifetime of allegiance to his former denomination for a stricter view of what he considers the authority of God's words.

Corrington's position reflects why St. Barnabas, with about 400 members, and others have cast off their affiliation with one of the nation's oldest Protestant churches.

Spinoff parishioners say they're uncomfortable with liberal interpretations the denomination has taken of what they feel is uncontestable Scriptural authority.

A threat of a split hung over the church for more than 20 years, Tasker said. But what he calls "the precipitating event" leading to the congregation's Nov. 6 vote was the Episcopal Church's consecration of clergyman Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2004.

Robinson, who acknowledges he is gay, is committed to a long-standing same-sex relationship.

While the Episcopal Church mainstream sees no inconsistency in his position, conservative parishes such as St. Barnabas claim that the Bible considers the bishop's behavior sinful, his role in the church intolerable and his consecration a sign that conservative parishes should leave.

The fissure in the Episcopal Church over its embrace of gays and lesbians as fully acknowledged members and leaders reflects divisions within other denominations.

The Rev. Susan Russell, coordinator of the Episcopal Gay Coalition in Pasadena, Calif., said even beyond that, it mirrors a nationwide values dispute over what's culturally acceptable. "What we're seeing in the church writ small is what's going on in the broader culture writ big," she said.

One side of the divide urges that gays and lesbians should be able to enjoy the same rights and privileges (including legal marriage or civil union) as heterosexuals; the other believes such a view threatens traditional marriage and the Bible's moral authority. They say several passages suggest homosexual behavior is sinful.

Whatever the most basic source of the church's division -- traditionalists' disapproval of gays' taking roles in their clergy or a wide array of differences in Scriptural interpretation -- outsiders who closely monitor the rift are reluctant to speculate on the outcome.

"We can only guess whether they'll get together," said Martin Marty, a retired University of Chicago Divinity School professor and Lutheran minister who writes about Protestantism.

Arthur Hall, a lawyer and St. Barnabas senior warden -- or head of the vestry -- said church differences are too critical for easy reconciliation.

What he, like Tasker, called "the precipitating event" of Robinson's consecration, "is a sign the church doesn't value the authority of Scripture as much as the Anglican Communion does."

He worries that outsiders "think it's something personal we have about homosexuals. It's not that we don't like them. It's a matter of the sanctity of the Bible."

Hall perceives "so much turbulence that any unity between the more traditional church and the Episcopal Church seems unlikely now." His hope, he said with a small laugh, is that the latter "comes around to accept traditional interpretations of Scriptural authority."

Episcopal leaders see that as unlikely.

"The two sides could be fighting for years," John Shelby Spong, the liberal retired Episcopal bishop of New Jersey, said.

"But we'll get past it."

Battles over how churches confront sexual orientation, Spong said, are like disputes dating back to the centuries after the biblical Jesus is said to have walked the earth.

"Bitter debates occurred when new reality had to be incorporated" into doctrine.

Tasker shook his head at such a notion. The dispute he's had with his former denomination, he said, is over "whether the Episcopal Church recognizes the authority of the word of God."

Most spinoffs aligned themselves with Anglican dioceses in South America and Africa.

The four Northeast Ohio churches are St. Barnabas, St. Luke's in Fairlawn, Church of the Holy Spirit in Akron and St. Anne's in the Fields in Madison.

A joint statement said their withdrawal was "over divergent understandings of the authority of Scripture and traditional Christian teaching."

St. Barnabas joined a Bolivian Anglican diocese, "a marriage of convenience," Tasker said with a small laugh and the Australian accent he holds from his childhood in Adelaide.

He and his parishioners view the shift as a historic break. But from Corrington to the newest members, no one interviewed for this story uttered a word against the change or distant diocese.

Tasker said he's not aware of any member who left St. Barnabas because of the new affiliation.

Speaking in his dim office, Tasker grimaced, pushing forward in an easy chair as he spoke about Episcopal positions. "They say the church wrote these documents, so the church can interpret them, change them. My God, what does that say about Christian values? It's alarming."

Spong and others pointed out that from the beginning, Christians had to interpret Scripture to make sense of its "often contradictory language."

Tasker agreed that the church rightly shifted its view that a woman "submit to [her] husband as to the Lord." And he agreed that approving references to slave-owning, polygamy and adultery don't justify such behavior now.

"Today we see the bigger pictures," he said. "Things changed. Perceptions changed."

Then, might growing evidence that sexual orientation is a biological imperative ever trump his sense that it's a choice people make?

"No," he said quickly. "It won't change. I know people say they don't have a choice, but that's been disproven. We say if homosexuality is accepted, that's the beginning of humanity going down the tube. It's against God's authority."

Lind has a different take. She considers the Episcopal "a thinking church, one where you don't leave your intellect, your reason at the door." She said she favors continuing "thoughtful interpretation."

Reason and practical considerations also suggest the church and its estranged congregations are still far from divorce. For one thing, lawyers on both sides are arguing over ownership of real estate, staff retirement funds and other assets. "We're pretty sure our property belongs to St. Barnabas," Hall said.

That's in dispute. The Rev. Mark Hollingsworth Jr., bishop of the Ohio Diocese, said only, "All parties agreed not to discuss this matter publicly. We're working on a resolution."

Patricia Sampson has her doubts. She, her husband, Michael, and their 17-year-old son, Stephen, are regulars at St. Barnabas. The schism, she said, has forced them to "think about what we really believe. It's about different views of Scriptural authority," she said. "And there's not really any going back on that."

Still, Lind remains optimistic that the divide will be mended.

She said years of pastoral counseling tell her that "sometimes separation is what's required for reconciliation."