San Francisco Chronicle 
Friday, 2 March 2001

Gay Rights a Hot Topic At Anglicans' Meeting

Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Related Article:
New York Times, 3 Mar 01: Episcopal Church Leaders Gather in a Divided Communion
Amid a growing schism over gay rights, the top 38 leaders of the worldwide Anglican church will gather at a retreat center in the North Carolina mountains today for eight days of prayer and politics.

According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rev. George Carey, the private meeting will be a time of "spiritual refreshment" for the presiding bishops of the 70 million-strong Anglican Communion, including the U.S. Episcopal Church.

Others envision a less serene gathering.

They say conservative Anglican primates from Africa and South America -- upset over a gay rights crusade in the Episcopal Church -- will attempt an unprecedented crackdown on their liberal North American brethren.

Conservatives here and abroad are upset over the increasing number of openly gay and lesbian priests in the Episcopal Church, along with the performance of "holy union" church ceremonies for homosexual couples.

ANATOMY OF A STANDOFF

"The adamant bishops will come and try to get control early. They'll be all lathered up and want heads to roll," said Bishop William Swing, spiritual leader of the San Francisco-based Diocese of California.

"Then the other side will say, 'Wait. Let me tell you about what's really going on in our churches.' Then there'll be a standoff, and a third group will get up and say, 'Listen, the church has 40,000 important things it needs to do, and some of you are just obsessed with sex. Can we get off sex and do the whole work of the church?' "

Swing won't be at the meeting -- the sole U.S. representative will be Presiding Episcopal Bishop Frank Griswold -- but the San Francisco bishop bases his scenario on private reports of a previous gathering of the primates, or leading bishops, last May in Portugal.

In recent years, bishops like Swing and Griswold -- those from the United States, Great Britain and other Western nations -- find themselves in the minority in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Rapid church growth in Africa and Asia has shifted the balance of power in a global body of worshipers once ruled by the Church of England.

"On any Sunday morning, there are more Anglicans going to church in Nigeria than in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England put together," said Ian Douglas, an associate professor of world mission and global Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Ma. "We've gone from being a white, Western-identified church to a church of the south."

UNITED AGAINST GAY RIGHTS

In recent years, conservative Episcopalians in the U.S. have sought to forge a new alliance with bishops from Africa and other developing countries -- convinced that they share a common opposition to gay rights.

"Many orthodox Episcopalians are intensely frustrated and discouraged by the state of our church," said David Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council.

His conservative Dallas-based group has urged the Anglican primates to defend the "biblical standard of marriage" and provide "alternative Episcopal oversight" for conservative parishes in the U.S.

Under current church law, the 38 Anglican primates have no direct authority over the Episcopal Church, or other individual provinces around the world. Church power is invested in individual bishops and policies set by national church conventions.

Two of the church leaders attending the North Carolina meeting, Bishop Maurice Sinclair of Argentina and Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies, have proposed new guidelines whereby the primates would have to approve "significant innovations in doctrine, discipline or ethics."

Errant national churches making changes without international approval would be put on "observer status" and eventually suspended from the worldwide Anglican Communion if they did not conform.

"They are asking the primates to exercise a level of authority they have not exercised before," Thompson said.

The world's Anglican bishops have already made it clear they don't like the gay rights crusade.

At their 1998 Lambeth Conference in England, Anglican bishops from around the world declared that homosexual activity was "contrary to Scripture." They advised against blessing same-sex relationships, or ordaining noncelibate gays and lesbians.

But Episcopal leaders in the U.S. have declined to crack down on those practices.

In response, conservative bishops in the United States, Rwanda and Southeast Asia went outside normal channels and named two conservative American priests "missionary bishops" to shepherd parishes upset over gay rights and other liberal trends in the Episcopal Church.

Griswold and the Archbishop of Canterbury say the two new bishops are not empowered to operate in the United States.

Meanwhile, about 160 of the nation's 7,400 Episcopal parishes -- including a dozen conservative churches in California -- have split off and formed a new network of churches organized by the American Anglican Council.

"There already is a schism," said Thompson. "The only question is how large it will become."

Thompson said it will not be easy for conservatives in the United States and Great Britain to forge an effective alliance with Third World bishops.

"They have more important issues to face," he said, "like globalization, international debt relief, health care, totalitarian governments, AIDS and religious persecution. "

Swing, who has ordained many gay and lesbian priests in the Bay Area, favors the tolerant stand on sexuality adopted at last year's Episcopal General Convention in Denver.

It skirts the gay-straight debate by addressing "couples living both in marriage and in other lifelong relationships." It calls on them to work for "fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful and honest communication and holy love."