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(UNDATED) It was Aug. 5, 2003, and bishops at the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church had voted for the first time to let an openly gay man become a bishop.
Louie Crew of East Orange, N.J., who has been active in Episcopal Church politics for decades, was there in Minneapolis and vividly remembers trying to hide his jubilation when Gene Robinson was approved as bishop of New Hampshire.
“We were under strict orders not to cheer,” said Crew, who is gay, recalling the scene. “We all respected the fact that it was a momentous decision that would be very painful to a large minority of the persons present.”
To no one’s surprise, keeping the church together since then has been a struggle.
Four Episcopal dioceses — in Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Ill., Pittsburgh and San Joaquin, Calif. — have split with the national church over the issue. African conservatives in the worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church, have aligned with those departing U.S. dioceses.
Emotional debate over the status of gays continues this summer among Episcopalians and members of other largely liberal mainstream Protestant denominations. This week, Lutherans will become the fourth mainline Protestant group to make news on policies affecting gays:
— The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (4.7 million members), whose weeklong meeting in Minneapolis began Sunday (Aug. 16), will vote on whether non-celibate gay people can be ordained as clergy, and on a statement saying same-gendered relationships have a place in the church.
— In July, the United Methodist News Service announced that the United Methodist Church (11 million members, 8 million of whom are
Americans) is on track, based on early voting results, to reject an amendment that would let any professed Christian become a church member.
Conservative opponents viewed the proposed change as implicit acceptance of homosexuality.
— In July, the Episcopal Church (2.1 million members) rescinded a de facto moratorium on electing gay bishops, which was imposed three years ago under pressure from sister Anglican churches. It also said clergy can bless same-sex unions.
— In June, the Presbyterian Church (USA) (2.3 million members) announced the rejection of an amendment that would have allowed non-celibate gays and lesbians to serve as clergy.
The four mainline groups have been losing members nationally for decades. Mainly because of conservative furor over Robinson’s election, the infighting of Episcopalians has received the most attention.
The Episcopalians’ recent pro-gay steps at their convention in Anaheim, Calif., drew criticism from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, but it pleased church liberals, including Bishop Mark Beckwith of Newark, N.J., whose diocese is among this country’s most liberal.
“To my mind, I think we identified gay and lesbian people as gifts in our midst,” he said. “There was an intent to build as large a tent as possible to allow everyone to come underneath.”
The underlying issues are the same as they were when Robinson became bishop in 2003, and since denominations began debating these issues decades ago.
On one side, opponents of expanded church rights for gay people point to biblical passages that unequivocally condemn homosexuality.
These critics of increased liberalism in their churches oppose not just gay sex but also any sex outside marriage.
On the other side, proponents cite an overarching charitable spirit of the Bible they say welcomes gay believers, even non-celibate ones, who want to participate in church life in all ways that heterosexual Christians can.
Still, the landscape for same-sex couples has changed dramatically since 2003. Six states have legalized same-sex marriage, and several more offer civil unions that allow same-sex couples many of the rights given to married couples.
“A number of bishops in Vermont and Maine, where the law has changed, they have people coming to them who are either in a civil union or married, which is now allowed by state law,” said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a top church official in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, who opposes efforts to bolster gay rights in the church.
“People are asking, `Can you bless our relationship?’ That was never the case before.”
At previous gatherings, Lutherans have rejected efforts to permit partnered gay clergy and blessings for same-sex unions. But the votes have been getting closer, said New Jersey Bishop E. Roy Riley, who has served since 1991.
“We have gay and lesbian persons serving all over the church,” he said. “The question is whether or not those folks can be in committed relationships with another person of the same sex.”
c. 2009 Religion News Service
(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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