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Bishop Lee's Choice

The New York Times
January 4, 2004

Throughout his nearly 19 years as the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Peter James Lee has been an unwavering centrist and consensus builder. His diocese, the largest in the Episcopal Church, is diverse, with giant urban churches and tiny rural ones, liberal mainline congregations and conservative evangelical ones, and Lee has managed to hold them all together by astutely finding the midpoint on any controversial issue and luring both sides toward it. At the Episcopal Church's general convention last summer in Minneapolis, Lee oversaw publication of a daily newsletter that offered a middle-of-the-road perspective on the many contentious issues facing the church. He called it Center Aisle.

The most contentious of the issues, of course, was the nomination of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest who had been living with another man for 14 years, to be the bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. For the 107 bishops in attendance, their vote on his confirmation would be the most scrutinized of their careers. And, based on Peter Lee's record, there seemed little doubt about where he would come down. On matters of sexuality, his diocese was largely traditional, and Lee, throughout his reign, had resolutely refused to bless same-sex unions or to ordain noncelibate gay or lesbian priests. Under his leadership, in fact, the diocese has adopted an explicit statement that ''the normative context for sexual intimacy is lifelong, heterosexual, monogamous marriage.''

In the weeks leading up to the vote, though, Lee reflected back on the nearly 200 bishops whose candidacies he voted on over the years. Some were divorced and remarried. Others held theological views that were sharply at odds with his own. Some had refused to ordain women, a practice Lee endorsed. Yet he had voted for them all. Lee did not know Gene Robinson personally, but the Episcopalians of New Hampshire clearly felt he would make a good bishop. And so, on Aug. 3, the day before the vote, Lee sent a letter to his diocese indicating his intention to confirm. ''I am convinced of the need to respect the Diocese of New Hampshire's decision, in spite of my personal reservations and our current diocesan policy, which would not permit Canon Robinson to be ordained in Virginia,'' he wrote. It was his prayer, he added, that the people of Virginia would ''unite in the mission we share, even as we acknowledge respectfully differences among us.''

The next day, Lee became one of 62 bishops to vote to confirm Robinson (with 45 against). However, his hope that the people of Virginia would unite behind him proved in vain. His vote set off a furor of an intensity and duration that stunned Lee. Since the end of the general convention in August, there have been forums and workshops on the issue of the gay bishop, and also protests. Rectors (as church heads are known) have been overwhelmed by phone calls from angry and confused parishioners. Hundreds have left their churches, and thousands more have insisted that none of their church contributions be passed on to the diocese. Already the diocese has lost more than $250,000 in anticipated revenues, forcing Bishop Lee to impose a hiring freeze.

Lee himself has received more than 1,000 letters and e-mail messages, and while some have been supportive, most have been critical and some downright abusive. ''You have betrayed the calling of Christ to be faithful,'' wrote a parishioner. ''I have lost total respect for you and am ashamed to be a part of this denomination.''

The uproar has been loudest at four giant churches located in the high-tech, sprawl-ridden, conservative suburbs southwest of Washington. These churches, with their combined 5,000 congregants, are evangelical in outlook -- they stress a personal relationship with Jesus and a literalist interpretation of the Bible. They also have strong ties to the American Anglican Council (A.A.C.), an orthodox organization within the Episcopal Church that is dedicated to fighting what it sees as the church's theological flabbiness and capitulation to popular culture. Since the election of Gene Robinson, these churches have been a hotbed of resistance. All four parishes have made it clear to Peter Lee that they would not welcome his presence, and their rectors are exploring alternative forms of ecclesiastical oversight -- an arrangement some see as a step toward creating a new orthodox body that would be independent of Episcopal Church U.S.A., while remaining within the worldwide Anglican communion.

The Episcopal Church has been struggling with the issue of homosexuality since long before Gene Robinson was consecrated. In 1977 Bishop Paul Moore of New York ordained the first openly homosexual priest. In the 1990's, Bishop John Spong of Newark moved even further, provocatively citing Scripture in support of embracing gays and others outside the traditional mainstream. The church, with just 2.3 million members, no longer has the exclusively Establishment character it once did; today it prides itself on its social activism and its ''big tent'' character. Louie Crew, the founder of Integrity, an Episcopal gay organization, estimates that as many as 20 percent of all Episcopal priests are gay or lesbian (though most are not open about it). Jo Belser, the lesbian daughter of a fundamentalist preacher who lives in Alexandria, Va., says that she joined the Episcopal Church because ''it's the only one that lets gay people grow spiritually without requiring that they stop being gay.''

Even while mainline parishes in the Northeast and the West Coast were moving to the left, however, an opposing force was gaining momentum in more conservative regions of the country. Over the last 20 years, the evangelical fervor that has swept America has seeped into the Episcopal Church too. Evangelicals and other conservatives remain a minority -- of the 7,300 Episcopal parishes nationwide, about 260 are affiliated with the traditionalist A.A.C. -- but they have loudly proclaimed their view that the church is an elitist, liberal institution too ready to sacrifice biblical purity on the altar of secular culture.

After years of quiet organizing, some of the evangelicals are using the Robinson election to push for an autonomous body that will serve as the ''true'' voice of the church. If the dissidents -- led by such people as Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh and Bishop Jack Iker of Fort Worth -- are to realize their goal, they will have to win over the congregants and rectors in places like the Diocese of Virginia. Extending from the Potomac River in the north to the James River (which bisects Richmond) in the south, it is home to both red and blue America. In the diocese's urbanized northern reaches, near Washington, parishioners work at policy centers and nonprofit agencies, lobbying and law firms, Congress and the State Department. The presence of the Pentagon, in Arlington, packs the pews with military officers, defense contractors and intelligence analysts. To the south, Richmond, a bastion of mainline Episcopalianism, has two dozen churches boasting members who trace their ancestry back to the Jamestown settlement.

Bishop Lee oversees the diocese's 189 churches from a converted 19th-century mansion in downtown Richmond. The bishop's office has soaring ceilings, parquet floors and, staring down from above the fireplace, a portrait of the Right Rev. James Madison, the state's first bishop. With his ruddy complexion, silver hair, piercing blue eyes, purple bishop's shirt, and sonorous, sermon-ready voice, Peter Lee projects an air of ecclesiastical authority. But his equanimity has been shaken by recent events. In the last few months he has faced what one conservative church activist calls a ''theological lynch mob.'' Parents have expressed concern about having him touch their children at confirmation ceremonies. He's been told he would spend eternity in hell. ''Psychological studies of clergy show that we are people who like to be liked,'' says Lee, who is 65. ''It's painful that there are churches where I'm not welcome -- that there are people who feel I've betrayed them.''

The sense of betrayal so many parishioners feel is, in a way, a measure of the moderate stance Lee so carefully cultivated. When he took over the diocese, in 1985, it was torn by regional rivalries and lingering disputes over the decision to revise the prayer book. A patient listener, Lee ''picked up the pieces,'' notes Russ Randle, a lawyer and active member of a church in Alexandria. ''Like Cal Ripken, he kept showing up every day.'' Faced with sensitive issues like homosexuality, Lee set up a group that periodically brought clergy and lay leaders together to air their views. The diocese thrived, with a new church opening in nearly every year of Lee's tenure, and Lee's strengths as a moderator -- or a fence sitter, depending on your sympathies -- were at least partly responsible for its stability.

Viewed against this backdrop, Lee's decision to support Gene Robinson seemed uncharacteristically bold. How, I asked, had he arrived at it? He began his answer by describing his gradual evolution on matters of social equality. ''I was born in Mississippi and raised in Pensacola, Fla.,'' along a stretch of the Gulf Coast ''known as the redneck Riviera,'' Lee said. His father, the manager of a manufacturing plant, was a lay officer of a local Episcopal church. It, like the schools Lee attended, was segregated.

In the spring of 1963, while he was working as a copy editor for a newspaper in Richmond and pondering the ministry, Lee followed with interest the nonviolent demonstrations being organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to protest segregation in Birmingham. Several local clergymen criticized King for moving too quickly, but Lee was moved by King's argument that injustices would never vanish by waiting until everyone was ready. Clerical leaders, the young Lee concluded, should use their authority to fight discrimination.

But Lee was not a natural activist. In 1965, when he was attending the Virginia Theological Seminary, several of his fellow students went to Selma to march with King. Lee did not join them. ''Emotionally, I wasn't there -- I wasn't ready to demonstrate,'' Lee recalls. Soon after, on a visit to his parents in Pensacola, he gave a ride to their housekeeper, a black woman who worked for the family for many years. ''She said, 'Mr. Peter, I saw all these young preachers walking with Dr. King, but I didn't see you,''' Lee said. ''That was a sore that went deep into my soul.''

In Lee's telling, his opposition to racial discrimination began to extend to sexual orientation in the 70's. At that time, he was the rector of a church in Chapel Hill, N.C., a liberal university town. The local chapter of Integrity invited Lee to perform the Eucharist. ''I'm pretty conservative on these things,'' he said. ''But my experience showed that the chapel was a refuge for gays and lesbians from all across North Carolina.''

As the bishop of Virginia, Lee met many gay and lesbian couples, and they seemed to be faithful churchgoers. In 1997, he began consulting with a prominent Roman Catholic psychiatrist on sensitive pastoral matters. He convinced Lee that ''you do real damage to gay and lesbian people by telling them that the way they are made is somehow defective,'' Lee told me.

This past summer, in the weeks before the general convention, Lee tried to sort through his many conflicting impulses on the role of gays in the church. He still didn't feel comfortable with the idea of blessing same-sex unions. And he wasn't ready to personally ordain a noncelibate gay priest. But his growing awareness of gays as flesh-and-blood members of the church was tugging him in the other direction. He immersed himself in Scripture. As he well knew, the handful of Biblical passages that deal explicitly with homosexuality are almost uniformly negative. Yet he also knew that on many moral issues -- divorce, slavery, stoning adulterers to death -- the interpretation of Scripture had changed along with shifting cultural norms. Rereading the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Lee was struck by how the early leaders of the church adapted the requirements of Jewish law to the realities of the gentile world. This seemed to him a clear call for an inclusive church.

Finally, Lee spoke with his wife of 38 years, Kristina. ''She's been very forceful on this,'' Lee said. ''She said, 'Peter, do you want to be on the side of the future or of the past?' That was a significant question for me.''

Lee decided to embrace the future. Yet, still very much the young man who couldn't bring himself to march with Martin Luther King Jr., he decided to keep his real reasons to himself. And so, in the letter he sent from Minneapolis, he stressed what he felt was the innocuous principle of local autonomy, hoping to avoid controversy.

Instead, he provoked a storm. The emotions unleashed by his vote proved so explosive that he decided to hold a series of forums at which parishioners could vent their views. Waking up in the middle of the night, he fitfully went over in his mind all that critics had said about him. He then set to work on a new statement explaining his vote, deciding to go public with the intellectual journey he'd made.

The first of the meetings took place in a diocesan boarding school in Middlesex County, east of Richmond, on Sept. 15. Lee, armed with his middle-of-the-night musings and a new determination, described the long hours he'd spent in prayer, the many bishops he'd consulted. Studying Scripture anew, he said, he had come away convinced ''that the Gospel is ever-increasing its power to erase the barriers that we human beings erect among ourselves.'' And, rereading Martin Luther King's ''Letter From a Birmingham Jail,'' he was reminded ''that significant change, especially change that involves new understanding of justice, often comes in a disruptive and disturbing manner.'' In the end, Lee told the audience, the vote on Gene Robinson's consecration presented ''a conflict between hope and fear. Hope for God's grace versus fear of change. I chose hope.''

It was a remarkable moment for Lee, a coming out of sorts for a man who had spent his whole career keeping his views to himself. The audience, however, sat silent. Shortly after, the Rev. Jeffrey Cerar, who had opposed Gene Robinson in Minneapolis, got up. ''Our general convention has abandoned the teaching of the universal church,'' he proclaimed. ''This is not just a difference of opinion. It is a departure from the very purpose and identity of the church.'' When he was done, much of the audience rose to its feet and cheered.

''I became aware at that first meeting that my statement was not going to change anybody's mind, and that my task was to receive the hostility of the people with as much grace as I could muster and not become hostile in return,'' Lee says.

His effort at stoicism would receive its greatest test at a forum held at the Virginia Theological Seminary. One after another, parishioners rose to accuse him of being an apostate and of turning his back on the Bible. And then, in front of the crowd of some 500 people, a woman from All Saints', one of the big four evangelical churches, read from a letter to Lee from the church's lay leadership regarding his scheduled visit to preside over a confirmation class. ''We would respectfully ask that, instead of you visiting All Saints' on Nov. 9, 2003, you send Bishop Gray for confirmation,'' the parishioner read. ''Our people are so distressed by your views that contradict the very clear teaching of Scripture that your visit this fall would be painful and divisive.'' Gasps arose from the crowd.

''It was very painful to be uninvited from All Saints', and in so public a way,'' Lee later told me. The insult was compounded by the fact that the letter had been sent to him weeks earlier, and that he had already told the church that he would agree to send another bishop in his place.

I asked John Guernsey, the rector of All Saints', why the church had insisted on reading the letter at the gathering. ''With all the turmoil in the Episcopal Church,'' Guernsey told me, ''we've been reassured by the fact that our bishop has held to the orthodox faith of the church and upheld the historic Christian teaching about sexuality and marriage. Then we found the rug pulled out from under us.'' Lee's subsequent efforts to explain his vote only made things worse, Guernsey went on: ''Initially, he said it was a matter of autonomy. Since then, he has been defending the rightness of his vote. He's been quoting Martin Luther King, saying that it is not simply regrettable what the church has done but that it is the right thing, that this is a justice issue. If anything, he has exacerbated the pain, the sense of betrayal.'' In light of this, he said, the church vestry ''felt it was appropriate to make a public witness of our position.''

All saints', together with the Falls Church, Church of the Apostles and Truro Church, constitute a bloc of evangelical churches that have led the charge against Peter Lee. For months their rectors have been talking with the bishop, trying to hammer out a deal that would allow for alternative oversight while leaving broad authority in the hands of the diocese. Leading these discussions has been Martyn Minns, the rector of Truro. To see how the resistance looked from the inside, I arranged to visit him. I was surprised at what I found.

Located in the city of Fairfax, about 15 miles southwest of Washington, Truro attracts 1,400 people on a typical Sunday, making it one of the 10 largest Episcopal congregations in the country. On matters of morality, it is among the staunchest. Its congregation includes many Republican activists -- people like Diane Knippers, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which works to expose what it considers the liberal excesses of mainline Protestantism. Some top figures in the American Anglican Council also worship here. Minns himself has worked closely with the council, and Truro has been host of a number of A.A.C. events.

A sturdy 6-foot-2, Minns is an imposing figure in his clerical black. With his angular face, dark complexion, neat beard and thinning dark hair, Minns, who is 60, seems to have stepped out of the eastern Mediterranean world in which Paul evangelized. Lining the walls of his office are handsomely built shelves filled with books. A modernist print of a crucified Jesus hangs on one wall. African crafts are scattered about.

''This is a very painful time for us,'' Minns says, his voice carrying traces of his native Nottingham, England. ''I've gotten about 40 letters from people saying they are leaving. I've been involved in this parish for 12 years, and to watch it fall apart is very painful.'' He speaks quickly and to the point -- a man in a hurry.

''Every society draws lines about what is behaviorally accepted,'' he says. ''The line I'm drawing is the one that Judaism and Christianity have been teaching for 2,000 years. To move away from that to basically a free-for-all -- where do you draw the line? . . . I draw the line on the basis of Biblical revelation.''

Couldn't people have different ways of interpreting the Bible and learn to live with those differences? I asked. ''That's a postmodern idea,'' Minns said dismissively. ''I'm trained as a mathematician. Either something is true or it isn't. When Gene Robinson says his sexual activity is sacramental and I consider it to be sinful, in my mind it has to be one or the other.''

Minns's training in mathematics came at the University of Birmingham. After graduating, he was hired by Mobil to work in New York. Feeling a call to the ministry, he entered Virginia Theological Seminary in 1975. After being ordained, he served in several parishes, including one in Manhattan. Minns arrived at Truro in 1991 and slowly built it into a powerhouse. He created and expanded ministries to work with inner-city kids, battered spouses and pregnant women. In 1998 he founded Five Talents, which extends small loans to budding entrepreneurs in the developing world. Minns has used the good will generated by the program to strengthen his ties with like-minded bishops in Africa, Asia and Latin America. ''I spend more time with bishops in the global south than with the bishop of Virginia,'' he observed with glee. In July, for instance, Truro was host of a visit by five Anglican archbishops from Africa, Asia and Australia, including Peter Akinola of Nigeria. Akinola joined Minns and 50 other conservative Episcopalians in a warning that confirming Gene Robinson could ''precipitate a dramatic realignment of the church.''

Given his conservative moral views, I wondered how Minns fared during his three years in Manhattan -- America's own Sodom. He brightened. ''I love New York -- the energy, the craziness,'' he said. ''I still miss the Upper West Side'' -- his church, All Angels', is on West 80th Street. ''You open the door and you never know what will hit you.'' Minns's church was next to Zabar's, the iconic food emporium, and whenever he returns to the city, he goes there. ''It's my idea of living,'' he said.

In a corner of his office, I noticed a shofar. It reminded me of a conversation I had the day before with Jo Belser, a leader in Virginia's Integrity organization. Integrity, she told me, had invited Minns to speak, and he had accepted. While his talk left little doubt about where he stood on homosexuality, the fact that Minns addressed the group at all distinguished him from many of his conservative brethren, she said. Noting his love of books, modern art and New York, she added, ''I think he has a Jewish soul.''

When I mentioned this to him, Minns told me how, when his mother was dying several years ago, she revealed that his great-grandfather was Jewish. ''I was delighted,'' he recalled. ''I felt very proud. One of my missions in life has been to get Christians to focus on their Jewish roots. Without that, we lose a lot.'' I was having a hard time fitting Minns's various parts together, and I told him so. ''I'm very hard to typecast,'' he said with relish. He recalled how in New York, ''we had everyone you could imagine coming into my church -- crack addicts, a transvestite in full regalia. I loved them. They became a part of the congregation. I'd say: 'God put us here to work. Are you willing to do that?' And I saw some profound changes.'' God, he added, ''can change lives'' -- even those of homosexuals. Minns says he believes that gays can be converted to heterosexuality through Christ-centered counseling -- an idea that almost all gays vehemently reject.

So, I wondered, what did this one-eighth-Jewish evangelical who regarded gays and lesbians as grievous sinners think Truro should do? Should it leave the Episcopal Church? It was hard getting him to say. At times during our talk, Minns sounded like a loyal foot soldier of the American Anglican Council; at others, he oozed conciliation and accommodation. For a man with such strong opinions, he seemed maddeningly hard to pin down.

I started to see why when I sat down with five of his parishioners, whom Minns had arranged for me to see. We met in his office while he was off tending to pastoral matters. Clean-cut and articulate, the group was unanimous in expressing outrage over the idea of a homosexual bishop, even while insisting that homosexuality was not the issue. ''The core issue is not homosexuality but biblical authority,'' said Jeff Fedorchak, a 42-year-old consultant. ''It's not open to interpretation. It's homosexuality this time -- what will it be the next?'' In our conversation, the word ''clear'' as applied to Scripture and its meaning kept coming up. On all sides these devout Christians felt assaulted by the lurid offerings of consumerist America -- half-dressed teen idols, gore-filled video games, Internet porn a click away -- and, seeking a lifeline, they had grasped hold of the Bible. Gay rights seemed especially threatening, for they saw it as challenging the sacrament of marriage, the foundation of their moral universe. At the same time, the intensity of their feelings about Gene Robinson indicated that something more profound was at work, that the issue of homosexuality touched them in a very visceral and vulnerable spot.

In the end, there was only one point on which the group disagreed, and that was how Truro should respond. ''I think we should stand up for the truth,'' said Bill Mullins, a lawyer, expressing a desire to leave. ''We should declare ourselves not in communion with this and suffer the consequences.'' Jamie Brown, a college student, was less certain. ''I'm torn on what to do,'' he said.

To judge from their comments, Truro seemed far more divided than its public face would suggest. And Minns's own statements reflected this. Dropping in at the tail end of our discussion, he began talking expansively about Truro's relations with the Anglican Communion. He urged everyone to read ''The Next Christendom,'' by Philip Jenkins, a professor at Pennsylvania State University. The book describes the rapid growth of Christianity in the developing world and argues that, given the thoroughly evangelical nature of the faith there, Christianity in the West will inevitably follow. ''Jenkins thinks the U.S. church has a big dilemma,'' Minns said. ''Is it going to go where world Christianity is going, or will it be left to an elite group of Unitarians?'' Such remarks would seem to support a militant stance. Yet, in his very next breath, Minns counseled caution: ''Our hope is not to jump into a separate province. I believe we can find a way not to have to do that.'' He added, ''I'm concerned about practical stuff -- about people being fired and churches closed.''

He was referring to Episcopal canon law, which holds that if a parish leaves the church, its diocese retains possession of its buildings and other assets. If Truro were suddenly to pack up and leave, the Diocese of Virginia would lay claim to its property -- a church complex, an office building, three large houses and eight acres of land. Lawsuits would inevitably follow. The Truro congregants might be forced to start anew. ''I have lots of wonderful lawyers who keep me from breaking the law until I'm sure I want to,'' he went on. ''I don't want to give $10 million '' -- the value of Truro's assets -- ''to an institution I don't agree with.'' What's more, Minns is mindful of his many parishioners who love Truro, are raising their children there and would hate to have to leave.

I was beginning to detect in Minns a pattern: tough rhetoric combined with pragmatic action. It would be on full display that evening, when some 400 people attended a church meeting to discuss Truro's future. Standing under a giant gold cross suspended above the altar, Minns described the new network of dissenting dioceses that he and other conservatives were hoping to form -- a structure that could become an independent province ''if that time came.'' Then, with barely a pause, he turned to the proposal for ''flying bishops,'' sympathetic prelates who would minister to Truro and the other conservative churches, thus allowing them to stay in the Episcopal Church.

It was only toward the end of the meeting, after nearly a dozen parishioners had expressed their outrage at Bishop Robinson's confirmation, that Minns was pressed to clarify his position on secession. ''I'm really maddened by this process,'' declared a young woman with smartly cut short hair. She and her husband, she said, had decided to leave the Episcopal Church. They would, however, consider returning if conservative Anglicans got their own, independent province. Was the new network Minns had discussed likely to lead to such an outcome?

''This network could become such a province,'' Minns responded. ''Peter Akinola has said he cannot be at the same table as Frank Griswold,'' the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and a supporter of Robinson. ''So quite possibly this will split the entire Anglican Communion.'' But he sidestepped the issue of whether this would necessitate Truro's leaving the Episcopal Church.

Later I observed to Minns that he seemed to be trying to channel the congregation's anger, and, ultimately, contain it. He agreed. ''This crowd is self-selecting,'' he said. Those who feel the most aggrieved about these matters are the ones who show up at such events. He had heard from many other congregants who either disagreed with his stand on Gene Robinson or who didn't know what to think. He said he felt dutybound to represent their views as well.

In many ways, then, the ambiguity I had sensed in Minns was intentional, a reflection of his dual constituencies. One is the militants, the people who share the goals of groups like the A.A.C. and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. These outfits have a sharp-edged political agenda that can be satisfied only by a full break with the church. At the same time, he has a flock to minister to, and many of its members fear the consequences of a break -- fears that Minns himself fully appreciates. So he has two hats, the one political and the other pastoral, and he is trying to wear them both.

It's a strange paradox: Martyn Minns, the insistent evangelist, is seeking compromise, while Peter Lee, the pragmatic fence sitter, is standing on principle. Together, the two are lurching toward a middle ground that would satisfy the conservatives' desire for autonomy while respecting the bishop's ultimate authority over such matters as choosing rectors, deciding whom to ordain and enforcing church laws.

This lurching seems emblematic of the church as a whole. In mid-December, the network Minns referred to at the Truro meeting came into being -- sort of. Robert Duncan, the outspoken bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, announced the formation of a new Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, under his supervision. Thirteen of the church's 100 dioceses in the United States were said to be joining the new network. While not seceding from the Episcopal Church, Duncan said, the group would try to win recognition from Anglican bishops overseas as the authentic Episcopal Church. Yet, within days, several bishops from those 13 dioceses disavowed their connection to the network, saying that the announcement had been premature. The affair had a Keystone Kops air about it, and it pointed to the hurdles the conservatives are facing as they push for an alternative to the Episcopal Church.

According to James Solheim, the director of the Episcopal News Service, the conservatives not only constitute a small minority within the church, but many of them ''are saying schism is not the answer.'' The idea of being bound up for years in costly and distracting litigation weighs heavily on them. Truro typifies that. That a rector as conservative as Martyn Minns is so intent on remaining within the Episcopal fold bodes ill for the advocates of a rupture.

None of the current bureaucratic machinations over ''extra-provincial structures'' address the fundamental divide over sexual orientation in the church, or the hurt it has caused people like Jo Belser. Frank Griswold says that most Episcopalians are neither outraged nor exultant at the election of Gene Robinson; rather, they are confused. That certainly seems true in Virginia. Most of its 189 parishes are fitfully trying to come to terms with the seismic events of the past few months. In sermons, forums and Bible-study groups, parishioners have been discussing, arguing and educating themselves about the rightful place of gays and lesbians in a church that for two millennia has shunned them. However great their differences, most seem to feel that the Episcopal tent is large enough to accommodate them all.

In my conversation with Bishop Lee, I asked when he thought Virginia might ordain a gay or lesbian priest. ''We already have,'' he said, noting that a half-dozen or so clergy members -- some of whom he had ordained -- had already come out to him privately. The bishop remains opposed to ordaining noncelibate gays, because of both his own personal resistance and that of his diocese. He's only willing to go so far. But, he says, ''I cannot imagine that in 30 years people are going to have difficulty with pastors in any mainstream denomination ordaining gays who are in committed relations.''

Reflecting on the events of the past few months, Lee said that, for all the pain they've caused, they've ''deepened my prayer life. And I like to think that down the road I'll be remembered as a bishop who did the right thing, who brought the diocese through a difficult time and who helped find a way to let people live together with their differences.''

Michael Massing is writing a book about the rivalry between Erasmus and Martin Luther and how it shaped European history.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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