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A View from the Experts: Schisms are nothing new, but this one could be profound

Sunday, November 09, 2003

By Lynda Guydon Taylor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The unfortunate thing about the controversy over the consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop is that it is hard to find common meeting ground, said a professor of history at Duke Divinity School.

Both sides are reading the Bible differently and drawing different conclusions, said David Steinmetz, a professor of the history of Christianity at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Liberals favor a more progressive reading of the Bible and therefore support ordination of a gay bishop; Conservatives say Scripture forbids engaging in homosexual behavior.

Still, Steinmetz said, the history of Christianity is full of divisions, including Judaism's split from Christianity, Protestants from Catholics and Methodists from Episcopalians. The American Protestant scene has a "child and grandchildren" whose ancestor was the Church of England. So this is not something new.

Splits, which sometimes have occurred over relatively insignificant issues, can be painful but productive, Steinmetz said.

What he finds more fascinating is the way American Episcopalians proceeded at the expense of alienating their Third World counterparts, who make up a sizable portion of church membership. Those in favor of the move went plowing ahead knowing full well how the larger church body felt. One African bishop said he could not see going to the conference because the Americans will do what they want anyway.

The consecration is big news in the U.S. and in the Third World, where the interpretation is that if one is not white and affluent, one cannot influence his church. There are enormous repercussions in undeveloped countries, although they've not been considered.

For instance, Archbishop Peter Akinola of the Anglican Church in Nigeria has compared the Rev. V. Gene Robinson's election to a "satanic attack on God's church." It is worth noting that Akinola heads the communion's single largest province, with 17.5 million members, Steinmetz said.

Asked whether he anticipates churches leaving over the issue, Steinmetz thinks that in the United States, efforts will be made to get the church to agree to what are known as "flying bishops." The term was coined by the Archbishop of York in England and refers to a bishop who supervises an area with which he is ideologically but not geographically aligned. Whether the Episcopal Church will agree to that, however, is a big question.

While splits in Christianity are nothing new, Steinmetz said, in the last century the dominant theme has been one of reunification. Although he was reluctant to predict the future, Steinmetz said his general sense is that this is not going to have a happy ending. Whether that means everybody stays in the "house" or one member of the "family" is not talking to another is an unknown.

Policy changes such as this can be forever, he said.

"I think that's what worries folks. It's not just that Gene Robinson is a bishop. It's that the door has been opened that cannot be closed again. When you change policy, you change something that has an effect on decisions downstream. My guess is there will be more gay bishops," he said.

Lynda Guydon Taylor can be reached at or 724-746-8813.

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