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ALBANY, NY: Episcopal bishop's opposition to same-sex marriage creates rift

ALBANY, NY: Episcopal bishop's opposition to same-sex marriage creates rift
Opposition to Episcopal leaders' acceptance drives some away

By Paul Grondahl
August 7, 2015

Episcopal Bishop William Love's opposition to same-sex marriage in defiance of the recent 78th general convention of the Episcopal Church that affirmed marriage equality has roiled the Albany diocese and caused parishioners to quit the Cathedral of All Saints in protest.

In a July 18 pastoral letter in response to last month's convention and June's historic Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing nationwide rights for same-sex marriage, Love cited a Book of Common Prayerdefinition of marriage as a "solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman."

Love was among just seven out of more than 100 bishops across the United States who flouted the convention's stance and publicly opposed same-sex marriage.

At a July 26 meeting that drew 60 parishioners after Sunday services at All Saints to discuss Love's pastoral letter -- the bishop did not attend because he was on sabbatical in Scotland -- emotions ran high and the contentious issue spurred angry words.

"People are struggling with this, and as a church we're trying to find our way through the issue without hurting people," said All Saints' Dean David Collum, who is part of the diocesan leadership. He conceded the July 26 meeting was a divisive discussion with supporters on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue.

There are about 250 households in the All Saints parish, the mother church of the diocese's 110 parishes that draw a total of about 6,500 worshippers on a typical Sunday.

Collum could not say how many have left the parish or diocese, but he heard from several people who used the euphemism of "leaning away" or "taking a bit of a break."

Some parishioners did not mince words and quit the parish.

"This was a difficult personal decision, but I can't teach the U.S. Constitution to my students and go to a church that discriminates against a group of people," said Alice Malavasic, an assistant professor of history at Hudson Valley Community College who attended All Saints for more than 20 years and taught Sunday school. She was the first to send Collum a letter informing him that she left the parish. Her letter referred to Love's position on marriage equality as "hostile and bigoted."

"Bishop Love literally segregated the cathedral from the Episcopal church and out of principle I won't attend a segregated cathedral," Malavasic said. She recalled an incident when she was a teenager in 1970 in her hometown of Russellville, S.C., and the Church of Christ her family attended built a new school for its white children, rather than send them to a public school with black children.

"That troubled me deeply as a teenager, and I wasn't going to accept segregation as an adult," she said.

Malasavic is among a group of All Saints defectors who drove last Sunday to Bennington, Vt., to attend St. Peter's Episcopal Church, which describes itself as "an open and affirming church, welcoming all of God's people."

Also, parishioners in Plattsburgh -- which is part of the 19-county Albany Episcopal diocese -- crossed the border to Montreal to attend Sunday services at Episcopal churches that embrace gay and lesbian couples.

"I'm in the process of grieving this debacle. It's a sad day for the Albany Episcopal Diocese," said Louis Bannister, who is openly gay. He owns Enchanted Florist of Albany and contributed floral arrangements to All Saints during the three years he was a member. He joined the All Saints group that decamped for the liberal Bennington church. He said he met others who introduced themselves as "refugees from Albany."

Bannister, who grew up in the Vermont diocese and has relatives who were ordained Episcopalian clergy, said he felt welcomed by All Saints parishioners but estranged from the leadership. "I understood I was not going to be loved as a child of God among Albany's diocesan leaders," Bannister said. "Honest dialogue is not possible in this diocese anymore. We've all been hiding in the grandeur and beauty of the cathedral for too long."

"We have a totally intransigent bishop who is telling me I should be homophobic. That's completely foreign to me as someone raised in an Episcopal church that was always liberal and tolerant," said Sylvia Barnard, a retired classics professor at the University at Albany who has attended All Saints for more than 30 years.

"I find it very depressing that we have one of seven bishops in the U.S. who went against the convention's position," she said. She added that she would not leave All Saints because it's within walking distance of her home and she has longtime friends in the parish.

"I'm staying on the sidelines on this issue, but I have traditional views, along with a lot of worshippers at the cathedral who chose not to speak out on this," said former Bishop David Ball, who has a 60-year association with All Saints. "All this fuss and fury is unfortunate, but we've got to learn to live together despite our different opinions."

Ball likened the current rift over same-sex marriage to a 1980s-era debate over allowing women to be ordained during his tenure as bishop. "I was opposed to female clergy at first, but I came around theologically and changed my opinion. That made some people happy and some people mad at me," he said. "It eventually calmed down back then and this will, too."

The Albany Episcopal Diocese has a history of alienating some members over its stance on gay issues. In 2003, Albany Bishop Daniel Herzog drew criticism for a pastoral letter that refused to accept the election of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who was openly gay, as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Herzog also disassociated himself from the Episcopal church's acceptance of same-sex relationships.

In 2007, Bishop David Bena, a retired assistant bishop in the Albany Episcopal Diocese, joined a controversial anti-gay splinter group known as the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. It became a refuge for conservative American Episcopalians angered by the 2003 ordination of Robinson and other gay clergy.

Also in 2007, Herzog retired from the ministry and left the Episcopal Church to join the Roman Catholic Church in protest over gay clergy. Herzog returned to his former faith in 2010.

Love's opposition to same-sex marriage was shared by other clerics, including Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese. Scharfenberger issued a statement in June that called the Supreme Court decision ruling upholding same-sex marriages "misguided," and he defined marriage as "between one man and one woman." He called the 5-4 court decision "a popular, but very narrow and deconstructive view" of marriage.

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