Washington Post, 3 Aug 03

Episcopal Debate on Gay Rites Is Polite, Passionate

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 2 -- For a church that is said to be on the verge of schism, Episcopalians do not seem very mad at each other.

Some passionate rhetoric has resounded through the cavernous convention center here, where more than 1,000 bishops, priests and lay people have gathered to decide whether to approve the election of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and to develop a formal rite for blessing same-sex unions.

But the debates have been drenched in professions of mutual respect, interrupted for common prayer and followed by the singing of hymns.

Supporters of V. Gene Robinson, whose election as a bishop in New Hampshire is up for ratification, are taking a soft-sell approach, walking around with buttons that read: "Ask me about Gene." Even opponents rushed to shake hands with Robinson, 56, after a contentious confirmation hearing Friday morning.

On Friday night, at the end of two and a half hours of testimony for and against same-sex unions, the Rev. Frank Wade of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Washington asked the two main antagonists in the debate to summarize each other's positions. "We are trying to be a model of the way a conversation among people of faith should take place," said Wade, who chairs a committee on liturgy.

The stereotype of Episcopalians as fastidiously polite, socially correct WASPs has not always been borne out at their General Conventions. In Phoenix in 1991, arguments over whether to ordain gay priests became so heated that one bishop was carried out with chest pains.

After that clash, the church brought in reconciliation consultants, and its bishops began annual retreats to build togetherness. Those efforts may be why the arguments over sexuality and marriage here have felt, as one delegate put it, more like a couple in marriage counseling than one facing divorce.

Opponents of Robinson's confirmation say the atmosphere is deceptive. "It is time to break through the veneer of what may be an air of unreality at this convention, and tell ourselves the truth," the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a conservative theologian from South Carolina, said during Friday night's debate.

If the convention's two legislative chambers approve Robinson's election in votes tentatively scheduled for Sunday and Monday, Harmon said, "it would bring through the back door a practice -- homosexuality -- that the Episcopal Church has never agreed to approve through the front door." And that, he said, "will shatter the Episcopal Church." To the Rev. Carter Heyward, a feminist liberation theologian who teaches at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., the atmosphere in Minneapolis is déjà vu.

The last time the church held a convention here was 1976, when delegates approved the ordination of women after six years of rancorous debate. Heyward was a central figure in that struggle as a member of the "Philadelphia 11," a group of Episcopal women who were ordained by three bishops without official sanction in 1974.

"It was a different convention center, but the same script," she said. Opponents argued that ordaining women violated centuries of church teaching, was contrary to the Bible and would split the church -- the same arguments made today against blessing gay couples and approving Robinson's election, she said.

The only really startling difference, Heyward added, is hearing the conservative position voiced by some female priests.

"Of course, women have as much right to be conservatives as men do," she said. "I just want to ask: 'My sister, how do you think you got where you are?' " Heyward teaches "queer theology," a burgeoning field whose adherents say God wants loving, committed relationships but not does not mean they must necessarily be heterosexual, procreative ones.

"I get very tired of being caricatured as saying anything goes, all bodies in whatever positions," she said. "God does not condemn homosexuality. What God condemns is abusive and violent sexuality, lack of mutuality, any kind of coercion. This is what I wish the church could get on with -- how to form a loving and responsible sexual ethic, not just for gays, not just for straights, but for everybody."

The Rev. Sam Pascoe, rector of Grace Church in Orange Park, Fla., said he wishes he could embrace such views and bless lifetime commitments by same-sex couples. But in his view, the Bible makes clear that God approves of sex only between a married man and woman.

One reason civility reigns at the convention, Pascoe suggested, is that many delegates share his ambivalence.

"This gives me no joy to believe what I believe about this," he said. "They're lovely people, and I wish my conscience were free to give them a rationale for what they want."