The Episcopal Church in the U.S. is part of the world-wide Anglican
Communion. It has successfully survived major
stressors without schism. It stayed united:
During the 19th century's racist and human rights conflicts, when many other
denominations split into pro-slavery and pro-abolition groups.
During the early 20th century debates over whether married couples
should have access to contraception.
During the 20th century's sexist debates over whether qualified women
should be eligible for ordination as priests.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries see another serious controversy
emerging. It involves whether:
Sexually active gays and lesbians in committed relationships should be
eligible for consideration for ordination as priests and consecration as bishops.
Whether the church should bless unions between loving, committed gay
and lesbian couples.
The worldwide Anglican Communion is seriously split on these topics.
Many in the leadership of
the North American provinces -- the Episcopal church, USA and the Anglican
church of Canada -- generally favor equality for gays and lesbians. The provinces in South
America, Africa, and Asia are unalterably opposed to granting equal rights (and
rites) to homosexuals. The American Anglican Council, the Concerned Clergy and Laity of the Episcopal Church, and similar
conservative groupsoppose actively gay priests or bishops, and the blessing of gay and lesbian unions.Although they form the right wing of North American Anglicanism, they are
aligned with the mainstream of Anglicanism worldwide. As has been common throughout recent centuries, the
church seems to reflect local popular culture rather than leading it.
Celibate and active gays and lesbians are welcome in the Episcopal church as
members. Since 1979, the church has permitted the ordination of celibate homosexuals.
However, the Episcopal church had a traditional policy of not ordaining sexually
active homosexuals. This guideline had never been enshrined in canon law. In 1990,
Bishop Righter ordained a gay male who was involved in a committed relationship.
A hearing was held to determine if the Bishop should be tried for heresy. The
charges against him were dismissed on 1996-MAY-15. This opened the door for other,
less courageous, Bishops to safely ordain homosexuals in committed relationships. A homosexual Episcopalian group estimates over 100 gay men and lesbians have been
ordained as priests and deacons in the US. Canon Gene Robinson, a homosexual in
a committed relationship, was elected bishop of New Hampshire in
2003. His election was affirmed by the 2003 General Convention.
What is the nature of the conflict?
There are many aspects to the heated, emotional debates over homosexuality --
both within the Episcopal church and the rest of society:
Sexual sin: There are differences in belief about whether
homosexual activities are always sinful. There is a near consensus among
American Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans that sex outside of a committed relationship, unsafe sex,
coercive sex, sex between related persons, or sex between persons of
inappropriate ages, is sinful -- whether performed by a same-sex or
opposite-sex couple. However there is no consensus over whether same-sex
behavior is always sinful.
Most liberals in the denomination would argue that the same rules apply for opposite-gender and
same-gender couples: sex is not sinful if it is safe, non-coercive, and
truly consensual, within a committed relationship between any two
Most conservatives argue that all same-sex behavior is intrinsically sinful, no
matter what the circumstances or the depth of the relationship between
Most conservatives feel that it is a behavior -- what one does. It is chosen,
abnormal, and unnatural.
Most liberals feel that it is a sexual orientation -- a part of what
one is. It is not chosen, and is both normal and natural for a minority
Independence of the General Convention: Another aspect to the
debate, at least within the Episcopal Church relates to the degree of
independence of an Anglican province from the larger Communion. There is
disagreement over whether a national or regional convention has the
authority to deviate from the policies established by the entire
Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conferences.
These are meetings held every ten years at which Anglican delegates from
all of the world's provinces meet. At the 1998 Lambeth Conference, a split
became noticeable between the European & North American delegates who
supported equal rights for gays and lesbians, and the delegates from
Africa, Asia and South America who condemned the concept. Ultimately, the
majority of delegates passed a resolution stating, in part:
The church rejects "homosexual practice as incompatible with the Scripture."
"In view of the teaching of the Scripture...abstinence is right for those who
are not called to [opposite-sex] marriage."
The church "cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing or ordaining of those
involved in same-gender unions."
In their 2003 General Convention, the Episcopal Church deviated from these guidelines. Dean Robinson's
election as bishop was confirmed. Also, the Episcopal Church acknowledged
that blessings of same-sex relationships were being conducted.
How to interpret the Bible: Liberal and conservative Anglicans disagree
over the implications in today's culture of the ten or so passages in the
Bible which appear to condemn some homosexual behaviors. They cannot reach
a consensus over whether these passages:
Condemn all homosexual behavior, or
Only censure specific activities like homosexual rape, homosexual
prostitution, homosexual behaviors by persons with a heterosexual
There is also the liberal/conservative conflict over the nature of the Bible itself:
Is it God's inerrant word, whose sexual teachings are applicable for all
societies and all eras, or
Is it a series of documents written by human authors with limited
knowledge of human sexuality.
Financial aspects: Another aspect to the debate is whether the
losers in the debate over homosexual rights will retaliate by reducing
financial contributions to their local congregation and to the
denomination itself. Many local churches are in an extremely precarious
financial situation, and cannot survive a significant decrease in support
Why has this controversy hit the Anglican Communion at this time?
The controversy was inevitable. It will be seen in every worldwide,
mainline denomination which determines its policies by democratic means.
On moral topics, organized religion tends to follow rather than lead
social trends within a given culture. This has been seen in the conflicts
over slavery; equal rights for women; decriminalization of contraceptive
devices and medication; female ordination and other ethical conflicts with a
religious component. This phenomenon is
particularly true of sexually-related matters.
Prior to the ground-breaking studies of Evelyn Hooker in the 1950s,
homosexuality was almost universally believed to be a mental illness, and an
abnormal, unnatural behavior by sexual perverts. Hooker
"published the first
empirical research to challenge the prevailing psychiatric assumption that
homosexuality was a mental illness. Her work was the cornerstone for an
entire body of research that ultimately led to removal of 'homosexuality'
from the [American Psychiatric Association's] Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders [in 1974]." 1However, organized religions adapted to the new findings at
The most liberal religious groups in North America -- Reform
Judaism, Unitarianism, Universalism, the United Church of Canada,
the United Church of Christ -- quickly altered their beliefs about
homosexuality to match the findings of human sexuality researchers.
As of 2003, conservative denominations have not yet begun to significantly change.
Mainline denominations are now seriously split on the matter.
The Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Anglican Church in Canada are
mainline denominations in which the homosexual issue has been hotly debated
for decades. Liberals within these denomination favor equal rights and
treatment for gays and lesbians; conservatives favor retention of the
present prohibitions against homosexual ordination and the blessing of
same-sex relationships. Throughout the worldwide Anglican Communion
the individual provinces are following the lead of their local cultures. Provinces in
Western Europe, the U.S. and Canada tend towards the liberal end of the
spectrum; provinces in South America, Africa and Asia tend towards the
conservative end. It is naive to assume that the entire Communion could
alter their beliefs in a coordinated manner. The Anglican Communion is not
like the Roman Catholic Church in which a small number of senior officials
can establish, change and enforce policies. It is a group of autonomous provinces, on
The result is a seriously divided Communion. Because gay rights have
progressed furthest in North America and a few countries in Western Europe,
it was inevitable that the American and Canadian Provinces of the Anglican
Communion would be the first to adopt the most liberal policies towards gays
and lesbians, and that most of the remaining would resist change. Thus,
conflict and the potential for schism within the Communion over
homosexuality could have been predicted decades ago. It can be expected to be replayed in future
sexually-related topics later in this century, including the acceptance of
transsexuals, of pre-marital sex, and of living together relationships.
Liberal groups favoring inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals,