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Episcopalians still pulling away

Diocese's votes distance it from church

Sunday, November 09, 2003

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh yesterday took another step away from the national church, voting at the diocese's annual convention to give local laws precedence over conflicting stands taken by the larger organization.

Clerical and laity representatives approved a constitutional amendment presented by Pittsburgh Bishop Robert W. Duncan Jr., a national leader of conservative Episcopalians opposed to recent church moves such as same-sex unions and the consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

That amendment, and a second one removing a requirement that clergy live in the Pittsburgh diocese to vote at conventions, won't become official unless they pass again at a second reading during next year's annual gathering.

Debate was sharp but civil yesterday, with proponents lining up at the microphone to assert the diocese cannot stand by and watch God-given doctrine adapted to meet changing human interpretations.

"We know we must resist this attack on the fundamental values of Christian faith," said the Rev. Geoff Chapman, rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Sewickley, where the convention was held.

The Rev. W. Jay Geisler, rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal in McKeesport, called the recent decisions of the national leadership arrogant and heretical.

"The general convention, if time permits, will change the Ten Commandments," he said. "This is about sexual morality. This is about God's word."

Across the room at their own designated microphone, opponents called the proposal illegal and begged their colleagues to work within the structure of the Episcopal organization. With this change, they warned, the Diocese of Pittsburgh would be seceding and its clergy members setting themselves up for charges of violating their ordination vows.

"I love many of you who are thinking about voting for this amendment, but I fear for your future," said Sue Boulden, of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Oakmont and a leader in a group that opposes the resolutions.

The Rev. Catherine Munz, rector at St. Brendan's Episcopal Church in Franklin Park, asked that the actual vote of participating clergy be recorded in case they faced church disciplinary action later. Duncan, who presided and took voice or standing votes only, said that might be considered next year when the final vote comes.

The Pittsburgh diocese is one of the church's most conservative, with only a small number of its 77 parishes considered to be more liberal.

Conservative Episcopalians make up a small portion of the total 2.3 million-member denomination in this country, but the worldwide Anglican Communion tends to be more conservative than the U.S. church.

Last year, the local convention approved a resolution that Pittsburgh would not accept canons, or laws, that don't fit with the worldwide stance on faith issues. This fall, a Shadyside parish filed suit seeking to prevent Bishop Duncan from transferring church property ownership in the event of a schism.

Although the most contentious debate yesterday focused on the first resolution, the second also drew attention. The amendment would change language in place for more than 100 years that requires clergy members to actually live in the diocese to have a vote at the conventions.

That, said critics, is simply a means of clearing the way to bring parishes from other dioceses into the Pittsburgh organization and creating a national power base. Those in favor of the change said it would allow clerics in missionary work or living elsewhere but still tied to the diocese to have a say in decisions.

The assembly voted down a motion to extend debate on the issue, then quickly passed the amendment.

After the voting session ended, the Rev. Mary Hays, canon missioner of the diocese, faced a phalanx of reporters trying to understand what happens next. Hays said it's unclear how this will play out, but the diocese wants to create a safe place for those who disagree with the decisions coming down from the national level.

Hays said she's talked to numerous priests around the country whose congregations are painfully divided and many clergy are questioning if they can continue in their posts. And yet, she pointed out, the diocese is about to ordain the largest class of deacons in its history.

"I think it's time for us to get on with our mission" of spreading the Gospel, she said, although she had to admit, "Certainly, conflict makes that more difficult."


Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018.

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