Gay Rites Movement

Sunday, Nov. 2 dawned sunny and hot, more like late spring than mid-autumn. At St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington's posh Georgetown neighborhood, the open doors brought a welcome bit of air to women in sleeveless dresses, who drew shawls loosely about their shoulders. The rector, choir members and seminarians were surely sweating beneath their crisp white robes as they filed in behind a woman carrying a heavy gold cross.

A layperson handed out the day's prayers on photocopied sheets to visitors entering the 18th-century building -- long a spiritual home to many of Washington's glitterati, including Francis Scott Key, whose portrait graces a wall in an adjoining room. In the pamphlet, a weekly message from the Rev. David Williams reminded congregants that this Sunday was part of All Saints' Day. Then it went on to the meat of the matter -- that this Nov. 2 was important to the church for another reason, the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. "While politics, orthodoxy, and a variety of opinions about what constitutes the church and its core beliefs may cause fractious conversation," the note read, "one thing will always remain eternal -- the love of God and the action of that love through the incarnation of Jesus Christ."

Normally the consecration of a bishop in New Hampshire wouldn't be an issue addressed in an out-of-state parish newsletter. But Robinson, as most of America is well aware, is the first openly gay "noncelibate" bishop to be consecrated in the Episcopal Church -- or, indeed, in any church. He has been the locus of a months-long fight over the future of the Anglican Communion, the worldwide body of which The Episcopal Church, USA is a part. He has been Topic A in England, and the subject of an emergency meeting of Anglican primates that met in mid-October. He has been chastised in Africa. He was the focus of a protest meeting of 2,500 in Dallas sponsored by the American Anglican Council, a body that has threatened to split from the church. He has even been contested at St. John's in Washington, where a heated open forum was held the week before the consecration.

And, of course, Robinson has brought those on the margins into the center, serving as a role model for gay men, lesbians and other minorities in the church. His nomination and subsequent consecration -- before a standing-room-only crowd of 4,000 in Durham, N.H. -- brought joy to thousands of Episcopalians who believe that this is a natural next step for the church, and one that reflects their true faith.

The Episcopal Church in America has been, for the past century and a half, at the forefront of social-justice issues. The church is not large in this country -- just 2.3 million parishioners -- but its members have held a disproportionate number of important jobs, including 11 presidencies and one-third of all seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. It was the Episcopal Church in the north that most vocally opposed slavery in the years before the Civil War and that first ordained an African American bishop in the late 19th century. The church, in sum, has helped dictate the civil religion of the United States; the forbearance it has preached and practiced both reflects and has helped establish a civic space of tolerance in the United States.

Throughout the 1990s, that civic space opened up to gays and lesbians in remarkable ways; and quietly, behind all the headlines about "outing" and gay leading characters on television, the Episcopal Church can be said to have played an important role in that change. Though it never adopted an official policy for accepting gay priests, the fact is that it has long been open to the practice. An out lesbian was ordained as a priest by New York Bishop Paul Moore as long ago as 1977. Widespread tolerance took longer, but many gay ministers were ordained -- and gay unions blessed -- throughout the 1990s. In towns all over America, attitudes were shifting inside the parish house.

This tolerance has its roots in the fact that Episcopalianism -- the word comes from the Greek word for "Bishops"; the church has no single leader, like the pope -- finds its spiritual center not only through Scripture and what is called "sacred tradition" but also through reason. As Frederick Quinn puts it in To Be a Pilgrim: The Anglican Ethos in History, reason "emphasizes the individual's rational choice of what to believe and how to interpret belief. Beyond acceptance of a few basic articles of faith ... Anglicanism is notoriously short on doctrine. Church doctrine undergoes continual evolution." The evolution of reason both shapes and is shaped by the continually evolving world around it -- the forming of new traditions.

This openness to evolution, of course, is what's threatening to Anglicans and those of other faiths opposed to Robinson. The church has been through this before: In the 1970s, it was also the first to ordain women as priests, and, in 1989, the first to elect a woman as bishop. "This is a church that has survived threats of schism several times in the last 30 years," says Richard Parker, a lecturer in public policy and a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "The reason it is able to survive is that it is nested in a church that has been stable in its [progressive] worldview for about a century and a half." In fact, the language used to protest the consecration of Gene Robinson mimics nearly word for word the epithets thrown around during the fight over ordaining women in the late 1970s and early '80s.

In September of 1977, more than 1,700 Episcopalians met in St. Louis to discuss breaking from the church if women were ordained. Their comments at the time sounded a lot like remarks made by the 2,500 who met in Dallas this summer to rally against Robinson. "We are not schismatics," a leader from the 1977 meeting told The Washington Post. "We stand where we have always stood. We believe what we have always believed. ... Others do not." It was, he went on, his church that had "gone another way unheeding" and "turned its back on those scriptural standards which God gave for our guidance."

But progressive Episcopalians say that "believing what we have always believed" is not necessarily in keeping with the ideology of the church. "Within Anglicanism ..." explains the Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., "there is an ethic ... where the church tries to be genuinely 'of' the cultural and political context of the place it is located." During the English Reformation in the 16th century, for example, the controversial decision to translate the Scripture into the English language, the vernacular, stemmed from this premise. It also explains some of the reason behind the fight over Robinson. There are 75 million Anglicans worldwide, and 38 regional or national churches in 164 countries. The American slice is tiny, and its context differs radically from the other countries in which Anglicanism is found. "The way in which conservatives can fall back on tradition and say, 'This is wrong in God's eyes,' that is what [American] Episcopalians have challenged head-on," says Karen King, professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School.

After the service, coffee and pastries were served in the community room at St. John's. John Suhar, a tall, gentle seminarian with Dick Cheney-style wide glasses, stood off to the side of the buffet table talking to parishioners. It was Suhar who'd led the debate about Robinson. In conversation, he said the meeting was a dialogue about change. Because "it's not the way it was, but it's not yet the way it's going to be," Suhar explained, people wanted "to talk, to understand so as not to become hostile."

"Any step forward on human rights and justice is where God calls us to go," says the Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, the Episcopalian nonprofit that fights for inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. "When we take those steps forward, we leave some [people] behind. I'm optimistic that a lot of them will catch up."

But as Russell surely knows well, there is talk of a worldwide split in the church, and of a more local break between Episcopalian parishes in America. Such a divide could mean an ugly battle over church property -- both material and spiritual. And yet, like change, talk of schism is nothing new for Episcopalians. There was talk of a split over the ordination of women, too, but it never came to pass.

The true legacy of the church is again in question, challenged this time by those who have begun to look for ways to gain distance from the national church without completely breaking away. Already, three conservative dioceses -- one in Pittsburgh and two in Texas -- have passed resolutions protesting Robinson. It's impossible to predict the shape future battles will take, but what seems highly unlikely is that this church, with all its progressive history, will start going in the other direction anytime soon.