Deep and difficult differences trouble Episcopalians in U.S.

Religion: Conservatives and liberals struggle with views on the ordination of women and acceptance of gays and lesbians in church life.

November 04, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Christ Church in Accokeek, a simple, brick chapel surrounded by a cemetery dating back to the Revolutionary War, looks like the picture of a peaceful, bucolic country church.

But for the past year, the Prince George's County parish has been the epicenter of rumblings of discontent by conservative Episcopalians who believe that the bishops and theologians of the national church are leading their flock astray, embracing liberal causes and deviating from the biblical faith.

The Rev. Samuel L. Edwards mirrors the setting of his church. He is a peaceful, soft-spoken priest with a white beard. But he has railed against the Episcopal Church, USA as "hell-bound" and the "Unchurch" for its liberal policies. He lost his battle last week to remain as rector of Christ Church in defiance of the bishop of the Diocese of Washington, Jane Holmes Dixon.

Dixon could not countenance his disdain for the denomination's theological development over the past three decades. After Edwards refused to recognize her spiritual authority, Dixon mixed state with church and persuaded a federal judge to order the priest to leave Christ Church.

This particular dispute is apparently ended, but the issue is far from resolved. Deep divisions remain between liberal and conservative Episcopalians - and their counterparts in other mainline denominations such as the Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians - that threaten schism and will continue to influence life in the 2.3 million-member church for the foreseeable future.

Episcopalians who oppose conservative attempts to turn back the clock on women's ordination and resist the denomination's evolving acceptance of gays and lesbians in church life say there is a baseline issue underlying these separate controversies.

"What we're seeing in the Episcopal Church is only a small example of a struggle occurring globally throughout all world religions," said Bishop Steven Charleston, president and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "In every major religion on Earth today, there is a rising tide of fundamentalism that seeks to strictly define what a person is supposed to believe and how they are to believe, and excludes others who do not fit into that definition."

But conservative Episcopalians say they are upholding the orthodox faith, which church leaders have abandoned in their attempts to be politically correct.

"The crises the Episcopal Church is facing are ones of leadership, faith and mission," said Harry Griffith, executive officer of the Anglican Mission in America, a breakaway group that is seeking to establish a traditionalist church separate from the Episcopal Church. "The crisis of leadership is that we have failed at the highest levels to uphold the truth of the Bible and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the son of God. The core of the Anglican faith is just no longer accepted by a significant number of ECUSA leadership and seminary professors."

One reason for the diversity in theological outlook is that although Anglicanism is hierarchical, it is not as rigidly hierarchical as Roman Catholicism. There is no Anglican pope to dictate dogma. Rather, the Anglican Communion is a union of autonomous churches, one of them being the Episcopal Church, USA, the Anglican branch in the United States. The Archbishop of Canterbury leads the Church of England and also is the "first among equals" among Anglican primates, the bishops who lead the national churches. As such, he wields moral and spiritual influence and is a symbol of unity for the Anglican Communion, but does not rule the world's 70 million Anglicans.

The two hot-button issues for conservative Episcopalians are the ordination of women and the church's policies on homosexuality.

The Episcopal Church has been ordaining women for more than 25 years, but there are still some parishes and dioceses that refuse to accept them as valid ministers or bishops. The General Convention, a national meeting of clergy and lay delegates that convenes every three years to set policy for the Episcopal Church, voted in 1976 to permit the ordination of women, but issued a "Statement of Conscience" that said conservatives who opposed it should not be coerced or penalized.

What has irked many conservatives - and even some moderates who don't want to see traditionalists pushed out - was a General Convention vote in 1997 to make acceptance of women's ordination mandatory, directing three dioceses that still did not permit women priests to start recruiting them.

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