DENVER, July 3 (RNS)--Episcopal Church leaders are hoping theirupcoming General Convention is a kinder, gentler sort of church meeting, but it's unlikely that the denomination will emerge from the Denver meeting untouched by the most polarizing issue facing American Protestantism--homosexuality.

The 2.3 million-member church, the proud bastion ofmiddle-of-the-road Protestantism, will meet in Denver July 5-14 for itstriennial meeting -- the first to be chaired by Presiding Bishop FrankGriswold -- to set policy, doctrine and budgets. With a lighter scheduleand less legislation to tackle, church leaders say this convention willhave a different feel than many past sessions.

"I genuinely believe there's a much different feeling afoot," saidthe Rev. Ian T. Douglas, a professor of world mission and globalChristianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "Idon't find it to be as contentious as in the past. There's a spirit ofgenerosity and a spirit of reconciliation, and I'm not trying to bePollyanna-ish about this."

Despite the overtures toward unity, the close to 1,000 delegateswill still have to tackle a range of sensitive issues that have touchedoff firestorms of controversy over the past 30 years.

They are not alone in their struggle. In March, the nation's Reformrabbis voted to allow the blessing of same-sex unions. In May, theUnited Methodist Church upheld its prohibitions against same-sex unionsand ordination. This past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly voted not to bless same-sex ceremonies.

And looming large over the Denver meeting will be the ripple effectsof the 1998 Lambeth Conference, which brought together representativesof the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Lambeth Conference, held afterthe U.S. church last met in 1997, upheld the Anglican positions againsthomosexuality, and at a meeting earlier this year in Portugal, Anglicanleaders reprimanded the U.S. church for its liberal leanings.

The divisions highlighted by the Lambeth resolutions have ledseveral renegade congregations to break away from the U.S. hierarchy andordain their own bishops. How--or if--Episcopalians can bridge thoseschisms is likely to influence the mood of the Denver meeting.

Perhaps the most contentious issue facing Episcopalians is whetherthe church should create a special liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Foryears, the church has left the gay question to local dioceses, with someallowing gays and lesbians to serve as pastors, others agreeing toperform same-sex union ceremonies for gay couples, and still others nottouching the issue.

The Denver meeting is largely expected to uphold that tradition. Atthe 1997 meeting, delegates instructed the 16-member Standing Commissionon Liturgy and Music to bring back proposals to Denver on how the churchshould deal with same-sex unions. The commission report largelymaintains the status quo.

The Rev. Bruce Jenneker, chair of the commission, said thecommission concluded that the only smart way to address the issue was bytaking "baby steps." A vote to approve such rites at the 1997 meetingfailed by just one vote.


"It would be, in my personal opinion, a wonderful day when thechurch could make that kind of affirmation," Jenneker said. "But thepolitical strategist that lives inside me isn't even confident that thisresolution is going to pass. If we had proposed one giant step, we mightget nothing out of this General Convention."

In a major step toward ecumenical cooperation, the church is widelyexpected to accept the "Called to Common Mission" agreement with the 5.2million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation'slargest Lutheran body. The agreement would allow both churches to shareclergy, mission projects and the sacraments.

Lutherans approved the agreement last summer by a slim margin, butcontroversy continues to linger. The agreement calls on Lutherans toaccept the historic belief of Catholics, Anglicans and others that thereis a line of bishops, extending back to Peter and the early church, thathas oversight authority over the universal church. Lutherans would berequired to have bishops preside at ordinations, but critics within theELCA say the agreement would chip away at Lutheran identity.

The church is also expected to tackle other sensitive issues thatmay have more resonance on the local level than the sometimes fuzzyissue of homosexuality. Delegates plan to break into small groups todiscuss racism, violence, ethnic diversity, liturgy and end-of-lifeissues.

Church leaders hope that by giving delegates a chance to talk,rather than having to cast up or down votes, the denomination will leaveDenver more united and better able to address controversy.

"We're hoping that by introducing some opportunities for people tobe in conversation with each other, we'll sort of be turning a corner inthe way we deal with each other," said the Rev. Rosemari Sullivan, thechurch's secretary for General Convention and a principle organizer.