A Year Later: Episcopal Church Intact After Election of Gay Bishop

A year after the election of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop (search), the church remains intact — splintered but not split. Most Episcopalians have stuck with their church and a dissident network of conservatives is growing more slowly than its founders hoped.

And yet the fallout and tension continues, particularly overseas, with worldwide Anglican unity in doubt.

"The church has reached a polarizing crossroads," said the Rev. John Sorenson, a moderate in the conservative Diocese of Albany, N.Y.

"Differences that those of us moderates used to think were a normal part of the church have reached a point where the conservative wing of the church is no longer willing to put up with the liberal wing — and the conservative wing is intent on winning."

The rift over homosexuality exploded last June 7, when the Diocese of New Hampshire (search) elected V. Gene Robinson (search) as bishop. Robinson, who lives openly with his longtime male partner, endured a tumultuous national confirmation process two months later and is now installed in his post.

Conservatives warned of schism as protests poured in from evangelical leaders in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, a global association of churches that includes America's Episcopal Church.

But the U.S. denomination, with 2.3 million members, is far from breaking apart.

Just seven of the 107 Episcopal dioceses, and less than 70 of the 6,800 congregations in other dioceses, have joined the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (search), which conservatives formed six months ago as a "church within a church" opposing denominational leaders.

At least two more dioceses are expected to vote on affiliating this year, but several evangelical bishops are reluctant to join while their parishioners are divided on the issue, conservative leaders say.

"It will continue to grow, it's just going to grow more slowly," said Canon David Anderson, head of the American Anglican Council, a conservative group which is helping build the network. "I think people are treating it as a very serious decision."

Robinson's elevation strained Episcopal ties with Roman Catholics and the Russian Orthodox, but relations have improved since then, said the Rev. Robert Wright, the top Episcopal consultant on ecumenical outreach.

Income overall to the national church will likely drop by a few million dollars, but some dioceses and parishes planned to give slightly more than expected to the denomination — easing the damage from those that withheld money in protest, church spokesman Dan England said. The financial outlook is worse in a dozen or so dioceses where opponents of ordaining gays held back substantial donations.

"If that's the apocalypse, we'll take it," said Jim Naughton, spokesman for the liberal Diocese of Washington.

Still, the crisis is nowhere near resolved, as the international Anglican situation indicates.

Leaders from 22 of the 38 Anglican provinces have denounced Episcopalians for consecrating Robinson, saying the Bible bans gay sex. The intensity of their complaints prompted the Anglican spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, to call an emergency summit and form a commission on how the communion can remain unified.

The Anglican Church of Canada, where a diocese has authorized same-sex blessings, has also been a focus of their complaints. On Thursday, the Canadian church affirmed the "integrity and sanctity" of same-sex relationships, but stopped short of authorizing blessing ceremonies for gay couples.

In April, some Anglican leaders from African provinces were so infuriated, they opted to refuse donations from the U.S. church. So far, Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria have declined their annual stipend from Episcopal national headquarters, England said. However, American money continues to flow to these provinces from other sources, such as dioceses.

Episcopalians who support ordaining gays say these are largely symbolic protests that are ultimately harmless. Overseas Anglican leaders — called primates — have no collective authority and have no power to intervene in decisions by a sister church.

But Sorenson contended the primates have been deeply influential, by rousing to protest those who otherwise would have been willing to tolerate a gay bishop.

"The fact that the archbishop of Canterbury and the commission is even bothering to write a report means they've been successful," said Sorenson, who is part of a national network called Via Media which is working to hold the church together.

Support from overseas primates has also lent stature to the network, even as it struggles to build support at home. When the emergency commission holds a private meeting in the United States next week, the network's leader, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, and Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, the head of the church, will address the panel.

"Effectively, we've been recognized to the extent we're actually being given equal time," Duncan said.

But the Rev. Peter Moore, conservative president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., said international support could wane if the network doesn't expand. He said the primates, "don't want to back a flagging horse. They want a racehorse."

Conservatives hope that the commission report, due this fall, will recommend some action that will boost the network's standing.

But Wright and several church observers predict it will do little to change relations among Episcopalians, leaving them divided but one church.