Saturday, March 22, 2003

A church divided

The consecration of an openly gay bishop spurs local debate

After a summer when “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” ruled the ratings and the Supreme Court ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional, it’s easy to forget that homosexuality still inspires debate. But reminders don’t come much clearer than the international controversy surrounding the Episcopal Church’s confirmation of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The story broke in June when Robinson, 56—a former married man with two daughters—was elected to lead the Diocese of New Hampshire. Debate flared up again when the election was ratified at the American Anglican Council’s national convention on August 5. On Sunday, November 2, Robinson was consecrated as a bishop at the University of New Hampshire in front of nearly 4,000 people, most of them supporters. Only three objected during the public comment period—one of whom read an explicit list of gay sex acts—although other dissenting members left the church afterward to join a protesting prayer service nearby.

But his official overall acceptance by the 2.3 million-member American Anglican Church has caused a deep divide among Episcopalians worldwide, with rumors of a split between the liberal and conservative sides of the membership. Local congregants also have strong opinions on the matter, and C-VILLE asked a few churchgoers whether a person’s sexual preference makes a difference within the religious community.

Jessica Nash, on her way out of a morning service at Christ Church on High Street, candidly said, “I’m very against the decision...part of being a Christian is the belief that Christ can transform you.” Her companions nodded in agreement, supporting the written statement from the conservative congregation’s vicar, the Rev. Jeffrey Fishwick: “I, and I suspect most of the parishioners of Christ Church, are deeply grieved over the decision.”

By telephone, Dave Johnson, rector at Church of Our Savior on E. Rio Road, offered a less emotional reaction. On September 24, Church of Our Savior hosted a two-hour forum on the topic where parishioners and priests expressed vastly differing opinions. He seemed less concerned with controversy than on focusing on the purpose of practicing religion. “I don’t agree with the decisions that were made,” he admits, adding, however, that the issue is “an unfortunate distraction from the message of the gospel.”

Robert Williams, a local Episcopalian, said that “Being a Christian means belonging to a community that goes back thousands of years. When someone challenges a moral-based history, there’s going to be a split. Moral conviction should stay timeless.” His sister, Anne Williams, agreed. “Where in the Bible does it say you can have a homosexual as a priest?”

“Acceptance of a leader who happens to be gay is a better reflection of true Christianity,” argued Eleanor Takseraas, outside of St. Paul’s Episcopal Campus Ministry on University Avenue, “in the sense that you’re not turning your back on someone who’s not like you.”

The Rev. Jonathan Voorhees describes St. Paul’s as “a progressive church” and doesn’t consider this issue political—“it’s a human issue,” he said. Voorhees regards the existence of homosexuals, within the church or otherwise, as neither evil nor uncommon.

Other Episcopalians are ambivalent, like Cary Wood, who regularly attends evening service. He just wants the situation resolved. “I have no reason to be against [homosexuals],” he said. “It’s a shame such a big deal is being made out of it.”—Athena

as appeared in C-VILLE Charlottesville's news & arts weekly