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OREGON: Faced with church's stand, member walks

Faced with church's stand, member walks

A man from Wilsonville makes the difficult decision to leave the Episcopalian Church after it consecrates an openly gay bishop

01/24/04

NANCY HAUGHT

The Marine Corps has left its mark on Robert W. Hawkins. He stands, even sits, straight and tall. His graying hair is trimmed close to his head. When he speaks, it is with an abiding sense of authority and that, he'll tell you, is the root of the problem.

Hawkins, 48, a resident of Wilsonville and a former major in the Marines, is now a former Episcopalian.

He's made the painful decision to walk away from the church that he thinks left him Nov. 2, when the Diocese of New Hampshire consecrated an openly gay bishop, to the distress of many U.S. Episcopalians and their global community, the Anglican Communion.

"It was a question of authority," Hawkins says. The church violated its own Articles of Religion in August, when its national convention voted to allow same-sex unions and to approve the election the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, Hawkins says. "The hypocrisy is overwhelming."

Hawkins is reeling from the decisions of the Episcopal Church in the United States, and his own. And he is not alone. Delegates representing about 235,000 Episcopalians, by some counts about one-tenth of the U.S. church, met this week in Texas to create "a church within a church." They call themselves the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes.

Hawkins is one of several Oregon lay people to have signed the network's theological charter. He did not attend the meeting, staying home to work on salvaging his own vocation. He'd like to attend seminary, become a priest and establish an Anglican church in Wilsonville.

As Hawkins pursued his goal, Americans heard President Bush suggest in his State of the Union address Tuesday that a constitutional amendment might be needed to reserve marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. The issue shows no sign of fading away. As the Episcopal Church in the United States struggles to avoid a schism, other mainline denominations are preparing to take it up. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will decide whether to ordain practicing homosexuals (celibate ones already can be ordained) and to endorse same-sex unions at its national assembly next year.

Deep ties to church, state "As a conservative Episcopalian, I'm an oxymoron in Oregon," Hawkins says. But as a native Oregonian, he's loath to leave the state, even to attend seminary. He was born in Bandon and attended St. John Episcopal Church. He still owns a cranberry farm there, but he moved to Wilsonville two years ago so he and his wife could continue their educations. They drove 45 minutes each way to attend services at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Salem.

His rift with the larger church began as the United States threatened to invade Iraq in the ongoing war against terrorism. When the leadership of the U.S. church and the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, denounced the U.S. decision to act without the approval of the United Nations, Hawkins disagreed. It was only later, after the convention votes on Robinson and same-sex unions, that the problem of authority became clearer to Hawkins.

"They say the country does not have the right to act unilaterally and then they reserved to themselves the right (to act unilaterally), to take a stand that is against the overwhelming Anglican community," Hawkins says.

In October, Hawkins met with the Rev. Jack L. Hilyard, a retired priest who was acting as interim vocations director of the Diocese of Oregon. The two had a conversation about whether Hawkins should go forward with his application to study for the priesthood.

As Hilyard remembers it, Hawkins talked about his conservative viewpoint and his confusion over his calling. "I did discourage him," Hilyard says, "but the reason for the discouragement was his own lack of clarity about whether to pursue this right now."

From Hilyard's perspective, the conversation was almost routine. Those seeking to begin seminary studies are often told, "not right now" and sent home to think about it some more, he says.

"We don't ordain just for us in Portland or in the Diocese of Oregon. We ordain for the whole Episcopal Church, and people need to be clear about that call. If there is any confusion or wavering or concern, we say, 'not right now.' "

From Hawkins' perspective, he left the meeting thinking someone with his conservative views would not make it through the selection process. "I was telling (Hilyard) quite frankly that if this church didn't abide by the archbishop of Canterbury and other leaders, that I was withdrawing my application."

That's what happened.

"The church of my birth left me" "I remember sitting in the pews on November 2 in St. Paul's (in Salem) when the church of my birth left me," Hawkins says. That was the date that Robinson was consecrated in New Hampshire.

"It was an emotional time for me and my wife." It started them a course of personal study, he says. They reviewed arguments on all sides of the question, but found no compelling reason to defy the interpretation of Scriptures that they believe most Anglicans hold.

Hawkins and his family left St. Paul's, where the congregation was not open to further discussions. The family found a new church in Wilsonville, at Community of Hope, whose pastor, the Rev. Doug Adams, describes himself as theologically conservative.

Hawkins recently contacted the Parish of St. Mark in Northwest Portland, a member of the Anglican Church in America since 1995. He has applied to become a postulant there, studying for the Anglican priesthood. He expects a decision from the seminary and St. Mark's soon.

Meanwhile, Oregon's new Episcopal bishop, the Rt. Rev. Johncy Itty, consecrated Sept. 20, has traveled throughout the diocese. The issue of Robinson's consecration and same-sex unions come up infrequently, he says. He has not met Hawkins, but the prospect of an Episcopalian leaving the church because of these issues is painful.

"If people indicate that they are leaving, I share a sense of loss and hope that somehow they will continue to be part of a conversation," he says. "We are not all of the same mind on this or other matters, but we always leave the door open to disagree or to come back. I am troubled that people do feel so strongly that they feel compelled to leave. We're a church that prides ourselves on being understanding and respectful of many points of view."

Itty, who has been careful to stand in the middle without taking an extreme position on the issue, says he won't be pushed to take one. "That's not where I am and not where the diocese is at this time," he says. "I don't want this to be an issue that defines us.

"We view the church to be a place of compassion, of engagement, a place where there is mutual respect and understanding in the midst of disagreements. The most important thing we are called to do is to focus on Christ and live out our Christian witness in a way that is meaningful to others. Many things in life are not neat or tidy, but that's God prerogative, to sort it all out."

Hawkins is not willing to wait. He sees the issues clearly, he says. He does not appreciate the criticism that he is homophobic or a bigot. The American Episcopal Church has overstepped its boundaries, those outlined in the Articles of Religion and published in "The Book of Common Prayer," he says.

"It all comes down to authority."

END

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