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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:

bullet During the 19th century's racist and human rights conflicts, when many other denominations split into pro-slavery and pro-abolition groups.
bullet During the early 20th century debates over whether married couples should have access to contraception.
bullet 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:

bullet Sexually active gays and lesbians in committed relationships should be eligible for consideration for ordination as priests and consecration as bishops.
bullet 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 groups oppose 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.

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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:

bullet 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.
bullet 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 adults.
bullet Most conservatives argue that all same-sex behavior is intrinsically sinful, no matter what the circumstances or the depth of the relationship between the participants.
bullet The nature of homosexuality: There is no agreement over what homosexuality is:
bullet Most conservatives feel that it is a behavior -- what one does. It is chosen, abnormal, and unnatural.
bullet 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 of adults.
bullet 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:
bullet The church rejects "homosexual practice as incompatible with the Scripture."
bullet "In view of the teaching of the Scripture...abstinence is right for those who are not called to [opposite-sex] marriage."
bullet 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.

bullet 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:
bullet Condemn all homosexual behavior, or
bullet Only censure specific activities like homosexual rape, homosexual prostitution, homosexual behaviors by persons with a heterosexual orientation.

There is also the liberal/conservative conflict over the nature of the Bible itself:
bullet Is it God's inerrant word, whose sexual teachings are applicable for all societies and all eras, or
bullet Is it a series of documents written by human authors with limited knowledge of human sexuality.

bullet 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 for long.

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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]." 1 However, organized religions adapted to the new findings at different speeds:

bullet 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.
bullet As of 2003, conservative denominations have not yet begun to significantly change.
bullet 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 separate paths.

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.

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Liberal groups favoring inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender:

bullet Beyond Inclusion, at:
bullet The Episcopal Woman's Caucus, at
bullet Integrity USA at:
bullet The Oasis in the Diocese of Newark, at:
bullet Oasis/California at:
bullet Oasis/Missouri at:
bullet The Witness magazine, at:

Please pass along to us the names and URLs of any groups that we have missed.

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Conservative groups favoring exclusion of sexually active gays from a position of equality:

bullet The American Anglican Council, at:
bullet Concerned Clergy and Laity of the Episcopal Church at:
bullet Episcopalians United, at:
bullet The Institute on Religion and Democracy has an outreach called "Episcopal Action" which "seeks to promote orthodox teaching and practice within the Episcopal Church." See:

Please pass along to us the names and URLs of any groups that we have missed.

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Related sections on homosexuality and:

bullet The worldwide Anglican Communion
bullet The Church of England
bullet The Anglican Church of Canada

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  1. "Evelyn Hooker, PhD," at:

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Copyright 1997 to 2003 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update: 2003-OCT-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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