July 20, 2008

Anglican Conference Comes As Some Dioceses Struggle With Ordination of Gay Clergy

DETROIT _ For years, worshippers at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Livonia, Mich., patiently put up with their diocese as it adopted a series of liberal changes that clashed with biblical tradition. But the breaking point came in 2003, when the Episcopal Church _ with the approval of the local diocese _ consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

After a testy meeting with Episcopal leaders, about two-thirds of the 300-member congregation bolted in 2006, leaving a church many of them grew up in. Two years later, they said they have no regrets.

"It just wasn't a Christian church anymore," explained Chris Darnell, 41.

Those words reflect a schism playing out within the Anglican Communion _ the largest Protestant body in the world _ as it faces an identity crisis that threatens to split its 77 million members. Four congregations in Michigan have broken away in recent years from the Episcopal Church, the Anglican body in the United States that has 87 churches in Michigan, with about 24,000 members.

That divide was noted Sunday by the head of the Anglican Communion at the start of the historic Lambeth Conference in England, a gathering of bishops held once every 10 years to chart the church's direction.

"We stand in the middle of one of the most severe challenges to have faced the Anglican family in its history," Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said in a statement released by the conference. The church's "policy about same-sex relations ... is causing pain and anxiety."

Williams and other clergymen hope to reach agreement at the end of the three-week conference, though the split could widen.

About 200 conservative bishops are boycotting the conference because, like the Livonia church, they're upset with the direction of its leaders. But hundreds of others at the conference, including Bishop Wendell Gibbs of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, support the changes and argue that they are part of the Christian message of inclusion.

Founded in England, the Anglican Communion expanded during the British Empire and is now the third-largest Christian group, after the Catholic and Orthodox churches. But Anglicans have since moved in a different direction, embracing, for example, female priests and bishops. Supporters say the church is embracing modernity; detractors say it's twisting to fit the latest cultural trend, rather than holding to the timeless principles of God.

At issue are fundamental questions such as:

_Is Jesus the only means of salvation, or are there other legitimate paths ?

_Is the Bible the literal word of God or man's word about God?

_Is pre martial sex OK?

Perhaps most explosive is the issue of gay and lesbian clergy. In southeastern Michigan, there are about six openly gay priests, said Episcopal activist Jim Toy of Ann Arbor. And in 2003, Gibbs supported the first consecration of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Archbishop Williams, the conference head, asked Robinson not to attend the Lambeth Conference so as to avoid controversy _ a move that angered some liberals _ but the New Hampshire bishop showed up in England last week to speak at nearby churches.

Thomas Trimble, 40, who attends an Episcopal church, supported Robinson's consecration, saying, "If you look at the Bible as a book of principles ... it calls for the inclusion of all people, including gays and lesbians."

But others said the change clearly violated biblical teachings. An alliance of conservative bishops in Africa and Asia _ coupled with some in the United States _ then threatened to leave the communion. Those ideological battles were seen in Michigan, where the four Episcopal churches that broke off now serve under the authority of non-Episcopal bishops. Other dissidents are fighting on the inside but could leave in the future.

"We didn't break away from the church so much as they broke away from what the Bible teaches," said the Rev. C. Allen Kannapell, 39, who heads the breakaway church in Livonia.

Kannapell's congregation gathers for services every week in a rented YMCA gym. The church is called the Anglican Church of Livonia and belongs to the Anglican Mission in the Americas, a network of more than 130 churches, many of them previously members of the Episcopal Church.

Like a lot of the other break away churches, it's overseen by clergy in Africa, in this case, Archbishop of Rwanda Emmanuel Kolini. It's a historical irony not lost on members.

Through British colonialism, Anglos helped bring Christianity to the continent and ruled over the converts; now, the Africans are holding fast to the traditions they were taught and leading a growing number of largely white congregations in the United States. Last month in Jerusalem, conservative Anglican clergy gathered for a meeting of dissidents called the Global Anglican Future Conference, led by Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola.

"We want unity ... but not at the cost of rewriting the Bible," a conference statement read.

Conservatives in the United States applauded Akinola's gathering and saw it as a return to the roots of Christianity. In their view, the church had been making the mistake of focusing more on social causes than the message of personal salvation through Jesus.

"The Episcopal Church has stepped outside of the Lord's teachings, and I just think that's a dangerous place to be," said the Rev. Dave Linka, 46, a former Episcopalian who is now rector of New Life Anglican Church, part of the same network as Kannapell's church. "Elements within the Episcopal Church had been dripping poison in the well."

In some cases, the split was so strong that it divided families.

Don Gorton Jr., 55, left St. Andrew's to join Kannapell's church _ even though his father stayed behind.

"They went astray," Gorton said of the Episcopal Church.

Gibbs would not comment about the split, but some supporters of his position argue there are two ways to interpret the Bible: as a book of rules or a book of principles. The first way, they argue, would allow slavery and the exclusion of gay clergy, while the second approach seeks "the inclusion of gays and lesbians," Trimble said.

The Rev. Canon William Logan, 88, of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Detroit also supports the new direction, seeing gay and lesbian rights in the context of the struggles of African-Americans and immigrant groups.

At the same time, Logan sympathizes with conservative congregations.

"I don't want to dismiss someone else's dearly held beliefs," he said.



About 650 bishops are expected to attend the three-week meeting of Anglican leaders that takes place every 10 years at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.

_Who won't be there: About 200 conservative bishops are boycotting the conference, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Unlike the pope, who is considered the head of the Catholic church, the archbishop is seen as a first among equals who wields a great deal of moral influence over the 77 million members of the Anglican Communion. His words will be closely listened to during this conference.

_What's at stake: The direction of the world's largest Protestant body. A big issue this year is gay and lesbian clergy. The Anglican body in the United States, the Episcopal Church, generally supports allowing gay and lesbian clergy members, but conservative factions are strongly opposed to it.


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