On the last full day of their nine-day triennial gathering, members of the Episcopal Church decided to “exercise restraint” on the consecration of gay bishops, falling short of the outright moratorium on the consecration of gay bishops that the Anglican Communion, the worldwide organization of 38 church bodies to which the Episcopal Church belongs, had required of them.

They also voted not to “repent” for the elevation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, bishop of New Hampshire, as their first openly gay bishop in 2003--another request of the Anglican Communion, which claims 77 million adherents. And a proposal to cease blessing same-sex unions--a third request of the Anglican Communion--was dropped entirely.

But these decisions came more by default than by design. Torn over the language of their response to the Anglican Communion–were they sincerely repentant? Or too haughty?--they first let die motions to declare a moratorium on gay bishops and a ban on same-sex unions. The final agreement came only after the church’s outgoing presiding bishop, the Rev. Frank Griswold, called on a joint session of the church’s two presiding houses on Wednesday morning to reach a compromise. The resulting policy is non-binding and leaves individual Episcopal dioceses to determine how far they want to include gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) persons in the life of the church.

No matter how they came about, the convention’s decisions–including Sunday’s historic election of the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, bishop of the diocese of Nevada, as the first woman to head the 2.3-million member church and the first female primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion–threaten to further widen the fissures in this already highly polarized denomination.

They also offer a glimpse into the future not only of the Episcopal Church, which, along with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted this week to leave gay ordination up to local church leaders, but into the country’s broader culture wars over homosexuality and same-sex unions.

“This [Episcopal conflict] is indicative of [America's] broader polarization,” said Ian Markham, dean of Hartford Seminary and a candidate for Episcopal holy orders, who estimates that church membership is 80 percent progressive and 20 percent conservative. “The Episcopal Church is predominantly blue state. So what this is indicative of is the growing polarization of America over this question. You have half the country impatient to move ahead, saying this is a justice issue and the world ought to acknowledge the rights of all individuals while the other half saying this is indicative of a country that is increasingly depraved. That is where the battle lines are.”

Some survey data bear Markham out. A 2005 Boston Globe poll found that about half of Americans don't want their states to recognize gay marriages and half do. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll in the same year found stronger opposition to gay marriage. 

A more recent poll suggests that public opinion on homosexuals is changing. According to a March 2006 Pew Forum poll, 51 percent of Americans oppose legalizing gay marriage, down from 63 percent in 2004. Those who favor same-sex marriage have increased from 29 percent in 2004 to 39 percent.

But if the Episcopalians remain as divided as the rest of the country over homosexuality, their debate has shown that the division between the two sides is not strictly a religious one. There are many committed Episcopalians who believe that GLBT persons are, in the words of Robinson, “children of God” and deserve to be recognized as full members of the church. That contrasts with the usual media portrayal of the debate in the broader culture, in which the loudest voices against homosexual rights routinely claim a religious foundation and those in favor seem to be more secular than religious.

“The national attention this debate has drawn is a true gift from God,” said Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, a group that fights for inclusion of GLBT persons in the church. “It is an opportunity for evangelization and an answer to the religious right, who have claimed they have the sole voice in Christian values.”

Most within the Episcopal Church believe that the denomination will eventually officially approve the ordination of gays and lesbians and the blessing of same-sex unions. They say that progressives, who are generally in favor of full inclusion, far outnumber the conservatives, who do not.

Markham says the conservatives make two points to defend their stance. First, that the Bible says that sex should be for procreation, so gay sex is thereby unnatural. Second, they refer to the “smattering” of verses explicitly banning homosexuality.

“But we have won the arguments,” Markham, a progressive Episcopalian, said. “We got over the first with contraception when we conceded that intimacy can be a legitimate expression of human sexuality. And we have won the biblical argument because the Bible is very pro-inclusion, and there are more texts that are pro-slavery than are anti-homosexual and all the churches have come to terms with the fact that biblical witness is not pro-slavery.”

Still, this week’s decisions do not end the debate. The compromise is being largely interpreted as a way to keep the channels of communication open between the Episcopal Church and the rest of the Anglican Communion, which does not recognize gay ordination.

“The deepest splits now are not between Catholics and Protestants, but within individual denominations,” said Jane Redmont, an assistant professor of religious studies at Guilford College and a candidate for Episcopal ordination. “This may be pushing us in to being very clear about where we stand on a variety of issues.”

Rev. Henry Scriven, an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, participated in the last week’s convention as part of the House of Bishops, one of the two legislative bodies of the church. A conservative–though he and many others prefer the term “orthodox”–he agrees the divide is a deep one.

“I think we are in a new dynamic,” he said just after the conclusion of the convention. “The fact is there are dynamic orthodox churches within all denominations that are preaching the Gospel, experiencing the transformative grace and love of Jesus and there are others that are more politically oriented that are saying everyone is welcome and we are one big happy family. But that is a very different philosophy. That is one that conforms to the broader culture and not to the Gospel which says that people’s lives can be changed and transformed by the grace of Christ.”

The election of Jefferts Schori is being heralded–and condemned as a bellwether move, too. More denominations are moving toward women’s ordination, recognizing the fact that women have long been and continue to be a mainstay of Christian ministry. Today, women’s ordination is recognized by a variety of denominations, including the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian-Universalist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well as the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Jewish Renewal branches of Judaism and some Buddhist groups. “This is clearly a move in the direction of making women’s ministry normative in the church,” said Mary E. Hunt, the co-founder and co-direct of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, WATER. “I think it foreshadows what we will see down the pike, that the vast majority of ministers will be women.”

But Jefferts Schori’s election will not be universally cheered by Episcopalians. A study conducted by the Episcopal Church reported almost 3,500 women priests or deacons in 2002, up from 855 in 1987, and 11 women bishops compared with none in 1987. But the study also reported acceptance of women in leadership is greatest at the national level, steadily dropping at the local diocesan and congregational levels.

Three of the 100 dioceses that comprise the Episcopal Church still do not recognize women’s ordination at all. And while many of the other bodies in the worldwide Anglican Communion ordain women as priests and deacons, only three consecrate them as bishops.

Many who oppose women in leadership positions see Jefferts Schori’s election as further evidence of the church’s move away from traditional Anglicanism. In a response to her election, the American Anglican Council, an organization of conservative Episcopalians, posted a response on their website.

“The election of Presiding Bishop-elect Jefferts Schori only intensifies the current trajectory of the Episcopal Church,” it reads. “[It] illustrates the fact that two churches exist under one roof with irreconcilable differences.”

Many conservatives take offense at the fact that Jefferts Schori, who presides in Nevada, helped craft her diocese’s blessing of same-sex unions.

“She was the most radical of the players who could have been elected,” said the Rev. Robert Duncan, bishop of Pittsburgh and a leading conservative voice. “I think the message that her election sends is that the American church is committed to its own agenda.”

Conservatives in the denomination, some of whom have been unhappy since the church voted to ordain women 30 years ago this week, may walk away from their membership in the Episcopal Church and join with another conservative body in the Anglican Communion.

“The future looks very difficult,” Rev. Scriven of Pittsburgh said. “If there is any possibility of us staying together it is looking hard. What the Episcopal Church is doing is showing that it doesn’t conform to the norms and beliefs of the rest of the Anglican Communion, so in a sense, what they are doing is forfeiting the right to call themselves Anglican in the mainstream sense.”

If a split does occur, the Episcopal Church and the congregations who leave will likely end up in legal battles over church buildings and other property.

It may also happen that the rest of the Anglican Communion abandons the U.S. church. Only three of the Anglican Communion’s bodies recognize female ordination, and the rest may refuse to meet with Jefferts Schori. They could deny her and thereby the U.S. church an invitation to the Communion’s Lambeth Conference, a meeting of church primates held every 10 years.

The most recent Lambeth Conference resulted in the Windsor Report, which strongly recommended–some felt demanded the Episcopal Church repent for and refrain from the consecration of homosexuals in order to remain within the Anglican Conference.

If the conservatives form another union, what effect would it have on those who remain in the Episcopal Church?

Likely, not a whole lot. Because of the autonomy of every Episcopal diocese, the decisions of the main church, no matter how strong or watered-down, have little real effect.

And as one priest, the rector of a large Episcopal church in Virginia, said last week, the denomination’s hand-wringing over homosexuals and women “isn’t even on our radar.”

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