2016-07-27
Two Camps, Divided
Distraught Conservatives
Veterans of Church Wars Past
A Mild-Mannered Revolutionary

June 16, 2006
7:30 a.m. The Debate Continues . . . .

The Episcopalians are behind. They had planned to vote on their response to the Windsor Report by tonight, Friday night, but the language of their response–is it contrite enough? is it reflective enough? is it repentant enough–has stirred so much debate and so much real anguish on both sides that the vote has been postponed.

Meanwhile, rumors persist that Peter Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria, has come to town secretly and may be waiting to lead conservatives, who do not think the church should recognize homosexual priests like V. Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, away from the larger church. At the last meeting, in 2003, some of these conservatives walked out of the convention hall and they have since made noises about breaking from the Episcopal Church for good. Still, these are just rumors. No one has seen him–or if they have, they aren’t talking–and he would be a hard man to miss in his rainbow colored robes and pointy archbishop’s hat.

Meanwhile, it seems that the mood has turned more somber than before. That’s what’s missing from this convention–an air of celebration. I am sure it is here, but I have not seen it. Instead, people move more purposefully through the convention hall, going more slowly from room to room.

Perhaps they watched V. Gene Robinson and David Anderson, leader of the opposition to Robinson’s ordination and president of the American Anglican Council, take their struggle to “Larry King Live.” Both men looked beset. Maybe they are just tired. There have been daily events from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Or perhaps they were up late attending a special talk on reconciliation. Retired Missouri Senator John Danforth, an Episcopal priest, called the 500 or so folks gathered in the hall reserved for the Eucharist, to “a higher calling. “Ours is a special calling to the ministry of reconciliation,” he said.

Tired or not, the biggest battle–a vote on whether or not to continue to consecrate gay bishops and same sex unions–is still ahead.

1:00 p.m. Trinity Cathedral

I have found the celebration.

Within the stone walls of the historic Trinity Episcopal Church near the Ohio state capitol, about 50 men and women are scattered in the dark wooden pews. They are marking 30 years of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t until 1976–after an official vote at another Episcopal Convention–that women could be ordained officially as priests in the church.

“Who are we, anyway?” the first reader, a small woman in a blue blazer, reads as the service starts. “We are the ones who make visible what was never seen. We broke the stony ground. We broke the stones! We brought a sea change to the world that has brought a radiance that is wondrous to behold.”

The butterscotch walls cast a warm glow that is punctuated by the bright fractals of stained glass windows or saints and medallions. A single soprano voice rises above the strains of an unseen piano to ask that God be among them.

Two days before, I attended a similar gathering in a side room of the convention hall, a liturgy in honor of the same anniversary. The gathered women–about 300–sang and danced in the aisles to the music of piano and tambourine. Most were in their 50s or above; most had the gray hair to show it. All had the spirit to show they had made the long, long journey from the pews to the altars.

“When you need God,” one of the first women to be ordained says from a lectern at the front, “No one cares if the person he sends is male or female.”

Dr. Fran Toy, a priest who serves the church in Asia, remembered being pushed to the fringes of her congregation not only because she was a woman, she also because she was Asian-American. Her bishop told her someone had objected to her taking a leadership position because “She is so short.”

The Rev. Dr. Peggy Bosmyer-Campbell, ordained in 1977, recalled the vote at the 1976 convention. There was “a holy silence,” she said, as the votes were tallied, and then riotous cheers from both men and women as their ordination was approved. “After 2,000 years of tradition,” she remembered, “We stepped out into the unknown. I was so proud of my church.”

All of this sounds familiar to me. I have heard similar language–tales of repression and marginalization–from those in the church who would like to see full inclusion of lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered persons and reconciliation with those who do not.

It occurs to me, as I watch these women embrace and cry that maybe in 30 years, at another Episcopal General Convention, people will gather–their hairlines graying, their waistlines expanding–to celebrate a history of inclusiveness for another group that now feels they do not have a place at the table

At the end of this liturgy, the women rise and move toward the walls, bringing with them chains of paper. On each pink or red construction paper link they have written the name of a woman in the diocese who has been ordained in the past three decades. When they get to the perimeter of the room, they join their chains together to form one vast rosy circle of names. They hold the chain up over their heads and begin singing:

Many gifts flow from one spirit
Many talents from our Lord;
Many ministries to thy service
By our acts Thou be adored.

If just one of our body suffer
All respond in deepest pain;
And when one of us is honored,
All rejoice in Jesus’ reign.


June 15, 2006

10:30 a.m. In the halls of the Greater Columbus Convention Center

It is day three of the Episcopal General Convention, the church’s triennial gathering, and as bishops, priests and others move through the halls of the convention center, many seem almost hung over after last night’s long and heated hearing. More than 1,100 Episcopalians packed the Hyatt Grand Ballroom to discuss whether or not to repent and apologize for electing V. Gene Robinson as the church’s first openly gay bishop three years ago and to declare a moratorium on same-sex unions.

While yesterday morning, people seemed poised with tension, today they seem not so much resigned as discouraged. The whispered buzz in the elevators and on the escalators is that the differences on both sides may be too broad for the church to reconcile at this 11-day meeting.

1:00 p.m. A Stairwell in the Network Arena

It is a 10-minute walk from the convention center to the temporary headquarters of the American Anglican Council, a group of Episcopal conservative parishes and individuals opposed to the full inclusion of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered persons in the church. To offer recognition and full inclusion, they feel, would be opposed to traditional Christianity and the teachings of Christ.

Each day of the convention, they gather for lunch and a briefing at the foot of a broad staircase in the Nationwide Arena, which begins with the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar, as a priest leads the gathered–about 125 of them–in a song.

“Great is the Lord, He is holy and just,” they sing. The stairwell amplifies and lifts up their song. “By His power, we trust in His love.”

Just as V. Gene Robinson, the man, is as plain and as normal looking as a man can be, so are these folks, who are so opposed to his consecration as bishop and ministry to the church’s LGBT people. Their official tags identify them as being from well-known places New York, Georgia, Montana, West Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, and Texas. They eat the apples included in their lunches the usual way–in a methodical circular gnaw about the core. When they are done they do not foam at the mouth.

After the song, Canon Ellis Brust, the corporate operating officer of the AAC, which claims to represent tens of thousands of distraught Episcopalians, delivers a devotional. “Fear of the Lord is just the starting place of truth and divine wisdom,” he tells them from a lectern at the foot of the stairs. “But when was the last time you heard a sermon on the fear of the Lord?”


They were about to. After a discussion of what resolutions and proposals were to appear before the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, the church’s two legislative bodies, Canon David Anderson took the lectern. Anderson is president of the AAC and has been a vocal opponent and prolific blogger of the actions the church took in 2003 with Robinson’s consecration.

He commended the church body for being so open and willing to listen to all voices during last night’s hearing. Then he said, “We have done enough talking. Let’s move to action.”

That action, many fear, will be to step away from the Episcopal Church to membership with another body in the Anglican Communion, an umbrella organization of 38 autonomous Anglican denominations. That would be a step to schism.

Unless . . .

“In a perfect world, what I really want is for the Episcopal Church to do a one-eighty,” Anderson continues. “To completely change its mind, to truly repent, to truly reaffirm the tenets of the Christian faith. I want the Episcopal Church to roll back the misdeeds and the mistakes of the last several years. Then we will have a starting point for a conversation of reconciliation.”

But then he continues, “It will be a miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea. But with the God we believe in, we know that is possible. But we also know the Episcopal Church and we know that statistically it is not likely.”

As he speaks, people are quiet. No one looks happy about any of this. But no one seems ready to back down, either.

“It is either time for reconciliation based on the truths of the church, or it is time for a divorce,” Anderson finishes. With an a cappella chorus of “Alleluias” and a “Go in Peace,” everyone files out the doors and back to the two houses of the convention, where they will work to influence the afternoon’s proposals.

If the AAC divorces itself from the Episcopal Church, where will they go? Rumor has it that Peter Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria who has been particularly vehement in his opposition to the Episcopal Church’s approval of Robinson, is in the city awaiting a vote on the LGBT-related issues. If he is, he could lead the disappointed conservatives out of the convention hall and into his branch of the Anglican Communion.

So far, this is only a rumor.

June 14, 2006
9:30 a.m.
Press room at the Columbus Convention Center
It is Day Two of the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and if this year’s triennial gathering is anything like 2003’s, there will be fireworks.
 

In 2003, the church consecrated V. Gene Robinson as the ninth Bishop of New Hampshire, making him its first openly gay bishop and sending shockwaves through the Anglican Communion, the worldwide umbrella organization of 38 autonomous church bodies of which the Episcopal Church is a member. At this year’s meeting in Columbus, Ohio, church officials and laypeople will have to deal with the fallout of Robinson’s consecration and the blessing of same sex unions performed by some Episcopal clergy.

In anticipation, about 50 reporters from the Episcopal and secular media are gathered, an impressive display of technology spread before each one–laptops, tape recorders, microphones, Blackberries, cellphones, and PDAs galore.
 
But even the gymnastics of the latest computer gizmos couldn’t spice up the offerings the four Episcopal officials and the church’s director of communications had for the press this morning. A candidate for president was being nominated in the House of Deputies, one of the two governing bodies of the church. She was running unopposed. If another candidate came forward, they’d be sure and let us know.
 
Then the level of parsing and dissection Episcopalians are famous for was put on display when a good four or five minutes was spent discussing the definition and use of “direct” in a single statement brought before the House of Bishops, the other governing church body.
 
Most of the reporters working for secular media skeddadled.
 
10:30 a.m.
Fusion restaurant in the Crowne Plaza Hotel
 
Judging by the television cameras, this was the place to be–a press conference where Gene Robinson was scheduled to speak.
 
Yet Robinson is so average-looking, so normal, so plain that even in a roomful of reporters waiting to hang on every word he utters, he is able to walk in, sit down in their midst, and go unnoticed until he is announced.
 
When he steps up to the podium, he looks like an insurance salesman. Or an accountant. Or your dad.
 
But Gene Robinson is none of those things. With his dun-colored hair, large glasses, and slight frame, he is the center of a storm of controversy currently roiling not only the Episcopal Church but the United States at large–the acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) community.
 
The most conservative Episcopalians want their church to repent of consecrating Robinson and to refrain from consecrating any more homosexuals and blessing their unions. The most progressive members want a church that welcomes and affirms people of all lifestyles, even if it means letting go of their place in the worldwide Anglican Communion. In the middle are a whole lot of other Episcopalians who are agonizing about the right thing to do while remaining a part of the Anglican family and true to the teachings of Christ. 
 
There is about Robinson a kind of reserved tenseness. It is in the way he holds his mouth–down at the corners–and in the tightness of the lines about his eyes. He knows this convention will likely bring more conflict and controversy to the church body Episcopalians hold dear. You can see his concern reflected in the faces and bodies of the other Episcopalians gathered here. They have tight smiles and tight lips. No one really wants to talk about the possibility of schism. Instead, they wage a theological battle via colorful buttons that bear various slogans: “Reconciliation” says a purple one; “Love one another,” says another.
 
But as Robinson addresses the reporters, his voice picks up intensity and he seems to grow larger behind the podium that could almost hide him. “The conservative voices in our church are saying that at this very moment in the life of our church we are fighting for the soul of the church,” he says, reading from a sheet of paper. “The question is whether this will be a church about rules, about walls, about division, about schism, about threats, about violent language, or will this be a church about the all-inclusive love of God in which every, every baptized person will hear in his or her own heart what Jesus heard at his baptism–you are my beloved, in you I am well pleased.”
 
“And so we are fighting over the soul of this church, about whether this will be a church about God’s love for all of God’s children or something else, something from the past, something from which we should repent. It is a great moment to be here . . . “

7:30 p.m.
Grand Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel
 
At tonight’s meeting, I wonder if Robinson still thinks it is a great moment to be here.
 

About 1,100 people–a capacity crowd–are packed into every seat in this largest meeting room in the Hyatt Hotel.

 

They are gathered for what the program says is a “Legislative Hearing of the Special Committee on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.” That’s a fancy title for a group of church leaders who have spent a long time crafting an official church response to the Anglican Communion’s “Windsor Report,” an excoriation of the Episcopal Church for consecrating Robinson and allowing bishops to perform gay unions. If the Episcopal Church wishes to remain a part of the Anglican Communion, the Windsor Report says, it must put a stop to the ordination of gay bishops and the blessing of gay unions, repent for elevating Robinson and for the pain their actions caused.
 
The Committee has crafted a document in response, and people have gathered to express their concerns about its resolutions. Francis Wade, a committee member, starts the night by saying the most important thing they would all do tonight was listen. “The contrary view may be the most important thing you will hear tonight,” he says. “It may be your means to your moment of grace and I urge you to grab it.”
 
Waiting for that chance are magenta-shirted bishops, black-clad priests, brown-robed monks and laypeople in every color and kind of clothing. There are men, women and even a kid or two. But despite the crowd and the cacophony of color, the hall is completely hushed. All attention is on a single speaker, one of more than 60 who is called to the microphone at the front of the room during the evening, to address the assembled committee.
 
It is very important not to let the plethora of material, in [the Special Commission Report] and in all the various commentaries upon it, detract attention from the central question: Will ECUSA comply with the specific and detailed recommendations of Windsor, or will it not?” says Robert Duncan, the Bishop of Pittsburgh, who has been the leader of the opposition to Robinson and what he means for the Episcopal Church. If the church does not comply, he continues, “with the greatest of heartbreak and sadness” he and other conservatives will leave and align themselves with another body in the Anglican Communion. “The day has arrived where those who have chosen the Episcopal Church because of its catholic and evangelical reliability, and those who have chosen the Episcopal Church for its revolutionary character”  must break with the Episcopal Church, he predicts.
 
Standing immediately behind Duncan, waiting his turn at the microphone, is Robinson. When it was announced that he would be allowed to speak, a small round of applause broke out in the back of the room, prompting Francis Wade, a member of the committee, to “remember the norms.” The hush fell quickly again.
 
“My name is Gene Robinson, and I am the bishop of New Hampshire,” he begins. “It seems to me this debate is about one thing--do we recognize the lives of Christ in the gays and lesbian of our community? . . . If we see the lives of Christ in our gay and lesbian members then let us say so . . . Pilate’s great sin was not that he didn’t know what was right, but that he lacked the moral courage to stand up for what he knew was right. Please, I beg you, let us stand up for what we know is right.”
 
With that, he left the hall. Not long after, people began trickling out. The rigid set of their shoulders, the downward cast of their heads and the tightness–the universal tightness, it seems–of lips and eyes testifying that the conflict will continue to Day Three.

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