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Think Tank: A church divided

Gay bishop's consecration has left concerns and questions

Sunday, November 09, 2003

By Lynda Guydon Taylor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Following a summer of discontent over the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church comes a likely winter of indecision about where the faithful go from here.

The consecration of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson has polarized Episcopalians in a way they've not been divided before, with liberals seeing it as a historic step toward inclusion and conservatives viewing it as incompatible with Scripture.

That's true in the Pittsburgh region, too.

Think Tank assembled a panel of Washington County Episcopal ministers on how they view the issue and whether it is appropriate for churches to leave the fold, as some congregations have indicated they may do. The panelists are the Rev. Karen B. Stevenson of Trinity Episcopal in Washington, the Rev. John E. Fierro of St. Paul's in Monongahela, the Rev. Mabel M. Fanguy of St. Thomas in Canonsburg, the Rev. Mark R. Wright of St. David's in Peters and the semi-retired Rev. John M. Leggett, who works with a lay pastor at St. John's in Donora.

While the consecration of Robinson occurred in New Hampshire, clearly the decision resonates throughout the Episcopal church.

"What happens on the national level in our denomination speaks to who we are as well," Wright said.

"I think a second point would be that Robinson was not consecrated the bishop of New Hampshire only. He is a bishop for the entire church," Fierro said.

Stevenson, too, is troubled by the message being sent: "By elevating him to the level of bishop assumes that his lifestyle is indeed a godly one, and that, as such, we are affirming his lifestyle," she said.

What concerned the panel, too, is that discussion effectively ended when the consecration occurred.

The Nov. 2 decision ended dialogue about the issue, Fierro concluded.

But Fanguy sees the issue from a different perspective, in that it makes a strong statement to the world that the church should not discriminate based on sexual orientation. His community elected him because he was the best man for the job, she said.

While the other ministers believe Scripture forbids Robinson from engaging in an open homosexual relationship, Fanguy thinks his case differs because he is in a serious, committed, monogamous relationship. He is divorced and has lived openly with the same man for 14 years.

"We're not speaking against people's orientation. We're speaking against their living openly with someone else and saying this is great," said Leggett said.

"So you're more against honesty?" Fanguy asked.

"No, no, no, no," Leggett answered.

Paul says that celibacy is a gift given to a few, Fanguy said. It is unfair to force celibacy on 10 percent of the population.

But when Robinson fulfilled his ordination vows as a deacon and priest, he promised to be faithful to Scripture years ago, Leggett said.

"It's not so much about human sexuality. It's about biblical authority," Fierro said. "I think that's what we're all agreeing. It's how you understand Scripture."

"I think the difference basically is the interplay between culture and Scripture. How do we see that, though? Do we see that Scripture speaks to culture or culture speaks to Scripture?" Wright said.

Fanguy believes general principles of Scripture are more important than specific phrases -- the most important being God's love and Jesus' redemption. To love one's neighbor means to include those of different lifestyles, Fanguy said.

But Stevenson said that, when discussing these issues, people end up talking a lot about whether homosexuals and others on the fringes of society are going to welcomed. But she believes the issue is the Gospel message, which is that Christ's love causes people to be transformed in character and lifestyle.

Simply put, Fierro said, "Everyone is welcome, but not everything everybody does is OK. That's across the board. That's not singling out any particular group."

On the other hand, Fanguy believes the church needs to be on the forefront of dealing with society's relevant issues. Whether it is Gene Robinson or somebody else down the road, it's an issue that is impacting the whole of society.

Stevenson agreed the church should move forward in welcoming people but differs on whether the best way to advance is by consecrating a gay lifestyle.

While Fierro, Stevenson, Wright and Leggett have concluded the consecration dialogue has ended, Fanguy believes discussion can and should continue.

Another issue, however, on which conversation now turns is: Where do churches go from here? A schism already has occurred, Wright said. How do Episcopalians live in a schism? Do they act as if it hasn't happened, stay together, talk with one another and realize "We simply have two different churches under one roof?"

As far as whether any local churches will leave, Wright said, no one knows how the next six months to a year will play out, or what kind of anxieties the process will bring. There will be litigation and questions about the stewardship of parishioners' money.

"Perhaps the more pertinent issue for us is: How do we pastor congregations of diverse views?" Fierro said. "That's what we're living with every single day -- people who come into our office with tears in their eyes or angry or confused or when they simply don't know what to make of the situation."


Lynda Guydon Taylor can be reached at ltaylor@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8813.

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