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VIRGINIA: Episcopalians Avert Split Over Gay Bishop

Virginia Episcopalians Avert Split Over Gay Bishop

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, February 1, 2004

Episcopalians of Virginia voted yesterday to set up a year-long "reconciliation commission" to examine ways of maintaining their unity in the face of deep theological differences over what the church's stance on homosexuality should be.

The vote, taken on the last day of the diocese's annual convention, had wide support among the 700 delegates gathered at a Reston hotel -- a sign, many said, of the desire not to let their differences lead to an open split. "What we're trying to figure out is how to stay together and proclaim the Gospel while we fight over what portions of the Gospel mean -- and it's just portions that we're fighting over," said the Rev. Lauren R. Stanley, associate rector of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Annandale.

The move effectively defers difficult decisions on how to resolve the diocese's simmering crisis ever since its bishop, Peter James Lee, voted with other bishops last summer to confirm the elevation of the denomination's first openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Lee's action sparked fierce protest from several congregations in his diocese, which runs from Northern Virginia to Richmond. At least eight congregations refused to send their annual contributions to the diocese this year. Several also have been active in setting up a new national network of conservative parishes that is asking to be led by bishops who voted against Robinson's elevation.

"The status quo prevailed," said the Rev. Martyn Minns, rector of Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax City and a leader of the conservative faction, who has been active in forming the new network, the American Anglican Council. While the vote "showed a general desire to move forward without dividing," Minns added, resolving the crisis "may mean structural changes." Minns voted in favor of establishing the reconciliation commission.

Like Lee, Bishop John Bryson Chane of the Diocese of Washington, which consists of the District and the Maryland suburbs, voted to confirm Robinson, but his decision did not spark as much protest as Lee's vote did in Virginia. Some Episcopal rectors expressed regret yesterday at how the vote would be perceived by gay members of their congregations. "I'm in pain about what happened this morning," said the Rev. James A. Papile, rector of St. Anne's in Reston. "We've asked people to wait before they can have full inclusion in the Episcopal Church."

One clergywoman urged Lee to include gay men and lesbians when selecting members of the commission. "Our voices need to be heard," she said. "Otherwise, I can't see how reconciliation can be done."

Speaking at a news conference after the vote, Lee said he was "very encouraged" by the wide support it garnered as well as by the willingness of his critics to let him choose the members of the commission, which is to report back to the diocese at next year's annual convention.

"I want to make sure there are as many voices at the table as possible," Lee said, adding that the commission's work would be done in a "transparent manner." Lee, who was twice given standing ovations by delegates during the two-day conference, has taken a conciliatory approach to his opponents. He has, for instance, allowed the two other bishops who report to him to visit congregations opposed to his vote on Robinson rather than insist that the parishes receive him.

Yesterday, Lee went a bit further at his news conference, saying he "would be willing to consider other possibilities" such as allowing these congregations' customary annual Episcopal visits done by "an overseas mission bishop." However, Lee added that this could happen only with his permission. "I would be the inviting bishop," he said. "I do not support the idea that a bishop can unilaterally come in and replace the duly consecrated bishop of Virginia."

The delegates also compromised on proposals for dealing with the diocese's financial problems, caused by the decision of some conservative parishes to withhold their annual contributions. As a result, the diocese's 2004 budget took a nearly $900,000 hit.

Some delegates expressed anger at the withholding, calling it "blackmail." Others said they disagreed with the parishes' decision but realized they were asking in good conscience. In the end, the delegates approved setting up a task force to study new rules for financial giving by churches to the diocese and referred for further study a proposal to let parishes designate how their contributions are spent.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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