Gay woman's ordination stirs up Episcopal Church

June 13, 1991|By Diane Winston

The Rev. Elizabeth Carl is not the first openly gay person to become a priest in the Episcopal Church, nor is she likely to be the last. But the timing of last week's ordination in Washington -- just weeks before the Episcopal Church was set to discuss the issue of gay ordination at its General Convention in Phoenix -- ensured that Ms. Carl would be one of the more controversial gays admitted to the priesthood.

"I was stunned to find someone acting as if the debate had already been concluded," said Bishop William Frey, dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambler, Pa., and an opponent of gay ordination. "This will make our debate in Phoe

nix a little hotter."

The 2.3 million-member church has been debating the matter of ordaining gays and lesbians since 1979 when the General Convention -- the church's governing body -- passed a resolution saying it was "not appropriate" to ordain practicing homosexuals or those engaging in sexual relationships outside marriage. Resolutions are not binding.

But clamor from Integrity, the Episcopal support group for gays and lesbians, as well as concern from church members who believe the essence of Scripture supports any loving, committed relationships, pushed both gay ordination and sanction of gay unions to the forefront.

To resolve the matter, Episcopal leaders asked the Standing Commission on Human Affairs to prepare a study on sexuality for the meeting in July in Phoenix. The study would provide a basis for policy-making.

The commission has reported that there is no scientific consensus on the cause of homosexuality and that "homosexual orientation is not morally culpable or inconsistent with being a committed Christian." It recommended leaving the matter of ordaining gays and lesbians to the local dioceses and urged openness to qualified homosexual candidates.

To head off the report, Bishop Frey said he will propose a canon law calling for clergy to abstain from sexual relations outside marriage.

It is into this quicksand that Elizabeth Carl slid when Bishop Ronald H. Haines of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington ordained her. Further fueling the controversy is Ms. Carl's long relationship with a woman.

Ms. Carl, 44, an assisting minister at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington, declined to be interviewed.

In an unusually candid statement after the ordination, Bishop Haines explained why he went ahead.

"The ordination of one whose lifestyle involves sexual relations outside marriage troubles me greatly. I do not advocate or recommend such a lifestyle -- heterosexual or homosexual -- as a model for the church's ordained ministry," Bishop Haines wrote.

But he added that while sexual orientation and lifestyle warranted serious consideration, they are not the only determinative factors in ordination. "I am not persuaded that one's homosexuality, for example, should by itself be an absolute bar to ordination in all cases," he said.

But Bishop Haines' timing surprised his co-religionists. Coming weeks before the General Convention, his action appeared to opponents as a violation of collegiality (the principle that bishops should actin concert) or a pre-emptive strike.

Ms. Carl had been ordained as a deacon -- a preliminary step before becoming a priest. Since that had not provoked controversy, some officials said Bishop Haines may not have foreseen the interest aroused by her ordination as a priest.

The denomination's head, Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, asked Bishop Haines to reconsider before he acted, "for the good of the whole church."

Other Episcopalians -- ranging from progressive to conservative -- agreed the ordination is likely to inflame discussion.

"He could have waited a month," said John Ott, head of the Prayer Book Society, a conservative group. "To do this days before the General Convention is very disturbing to us."

The Rev. Brien Koehler, head of the conservative Episcopal Synod of America, said the Carl ordination will intensify debate.

"It tends to make divisions sharper when there is an event which polarizes opinion this close to the debate," said Mr. Koehler.

Bishop A. Theodore Eastman of the Diocese of Maryland echoed TTC others who were taken aback. Bishop Haines has been known as a middle-of-the-roader.

"I was really surprised. He's not a guy who likes the spotlight, and I had regarded him as a bit on the conservative side," Bishop Eastman said. "This just sharpens the issue."

But supporters of gay ordination say the flap over Ms. Carlseems more like a public relations stunt than a genuine groundswell.

"This is certainly not the first lesbian ordained -- that happened in 1977 in the Episcopal Diocese of New York," said the Rev. Suzanne Hiatt, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "I can only conclude someone is trying to make a big deal out of it before the General Convention."

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