A word from Canterbury, finally

Thousands of Episcopalians believe the Sacrament of Marriage should be modernized to include same-sex unions.

Thousands of others across America disagree.

Many regional dioceses have become battlegrounds, with liberal parishes clashing with conservative parishes. At the national level, some bishops have tried, with little success, to convince their church hierarchy to repent after its 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. This war has rocked the 70-million-member Anglican Communion, where traditionalists hold a majority among the world's bishops.

So everyone has been waiting for a sign from the throne of St. Augustine. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has been pulled in both directions, although his progressive views on sexuality are well known.

"What is the current tension in the Anglican Communion actually about? Plenty of people are confident that they know the answer," wrote Williams, in a letter this week to the Anglican primates. "It's about gay bishops, or possibly women bishops. The American Church is in favor and others are against -- and the Church of England is not sure (as usual)."

But this is a conflict inside a global, sacramental communion, he stressed. It cannot be debated in political terms.

Anglicans can even appreciate the role homosexuals have played in church life, he said, yet believe that this "doesn't settle the question of whether the Christian Church has the freedom, on the basis of the Bible, and its historic teachings, to bless homosexual partnerships as a clear expression of God's will. That is disputed among Christians, and, as a bare matter of fact, only a small minority would answer yes to the question."

Thus, Williams believes it's time for Anglicans to write a covenant that would bind the communion together on crucial points of ancient Christian doctrine and practice. Liberal churches that declined to sign would become "associate" members of the communion and remain linked by bonds of history and friendship -- but not "constituent" members at the legal and sacramental levels.

Anglicanism would split, along lines defined by the global majority.

"Some actions -- and sacramental actions in particular -- just do have the effect of putting a Church outside or even across the central stream of the life they have shared with other Churches," wrote Williams. "It isn't a question of throwing people into outer darkness, but of recognizing that actions have consequences -- and that actions believed in good faith to be 'prophetic' in their radicalism are likely to have costly consequences."

What would this look like in practice? The relationship, said the archbishop, would not be "unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church," which broke away from Anglicanism in 1791.

The Episcopal Church posted the Williams letter on its website, without initial comment. However, activists on both sides quickly linked Canterbury's sobering epistle with the decision during their recent General Convention to change the church's name from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America to the Episcopal Church -- period. This underlined the fact that it already includes small jurisdictions in the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe. Might it soon include Canada, New Zealand, Scotland other churches that reject a doctrinal covenant?

Money will be an issue as Anglican leaders write their covenant.

The older, richer churches control massive endowments, pensions, seminaries, properties and the ecclesiastical structures in their lands. They control the resources of the past and will use them to defend what they believe is the theology of the future.

However, traditionalists in the Third World and in some giant American parishes are thriving in the here and now. They believe they can use the resources of the present to defend the theology of the past.

It's crucial that Williams repeatedly stressed that changes are coming no matter what, said Father David Roseberry, rector of the 4,500-member Christ Church in Plano, Texas. This week, the parish announced that it would leave the Episcopal Church, while striving to remain in the Anglican Communion.

"I'm impressed that Rowan Williams is not willing to sacrifice the doctrine, discipline and worship of Anglicanism in order to accept the doctrine, discipline and worship of the modern Episcopal Church," said Roseberry. "In fact, it appears that he is sacrificing his own personal views in order to preserve the unity of the church. This is exactly what we believe a bishop should do."

United Methodists do the math

From coast to coast, United Methodists are doing the math.

America's third-largest flock just survived another quadrennial General Conference rocked by media-friendly fighting over sex. Now it's time to dissect the numbers.

Delegates voted 570-334 to affirm the historic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Efforts to back laws defining "marriage as the union of one man and one woman" passed on a 624-184 vote. Same-sex union rites fell -- 756-159. Should the church delete its "faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness" standard for clergy? Delegates voted 806-95 to say "no."

The big news was a 579-376 vote against weakening the Book of Discipline's law that self-avowed, practicing homosexuals cannot be clergy because homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." Delegates also rejected a resolution from gay-rights supporters that said: "We recognize that Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching." That vote was 527-423.

After three decades of pain, it seemed the numbers were stacking up for United Methodist conservatives, whose churches are thriving in the American Sunbelt and the Third World.

But a final plot twist remained in Pittsburgh. A key leader caused fireworks by saying it's time to end the war over the Bible and sex -- by separating the armies.

"Our culture alone confronts us with more challenges than we can humanly speaking confront and challenge. That struggle, combined with the continuous struggle in the church, is more than we can bear. Our people, who have been faithful and patient, should not have to continue to endure our endless conflict," said the Rev. William Hinson, retired pastor of the 12,000-member First United Methodist Church of Houston, at a breakfast for conservatives.

"I believe the time has come when we must begin to explore an amicable and just separation that will free us both from our cycle of pain and conflict. Such a just separation will protect the property rights of churches and the pension rights of clergy. It will also free us to reclaim our high calling and to fulfill our mission in the world."

To understand the roots of this move -- which parallels divisions looming in other oldline Protestant churches -- it helps to dig a little deeper into the United Methodist numbers.

Hinson is president of the "Confessing Movement," with 1,400 churches with 650,000 members. Gay-rights supporters have a Reconciling Ministries Network of 192 churches, with 17,000 members.

But there are 35,000 congregations in all, with 8.3 million members. Sickened by decades of decline -- membership was 11 million in 1970 -- the last thing Methodists in the institutional middle wanted to hear was the word "schism." Before the conference closed, delegates linked hands, sang a hymn and passed a symbolic call for unity, 869 to 41.

And there was another number that deserved study. General Conference voted by a narrow 455-445 to clarify which Discipline violations can lead to a trial. The list of chargeable offenses now includes failing to be "celibate in singleness or being unfaithful in a heterosexual marriage; being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies."

But leaders on both sides noted that about 20 percent of the delegates this year came from Africa, Asia and Latin America -- where churches are more conservative. Efforts to enforce the Discipline's teachings might fall short, if left to delegates from North American churches. United Methodist progressives also continue to dominate the church's bureaucracies and seminaries.

So be it, said theologian Thomas Oden, a former United Methodist liberal who now is a conservative strategist. The key during the next four years is for local church leaders to weigh options for how to end the national warfare over the Bible and sex.

"We don't particularly care about the powers that be. What we care about is the doctrine and the Discipline in our church," he said. "That's were our focus is and that's where it will stay. ... But the actual enforcement of those teachings remains a problem for us, as it is for most Protestant churches today.

"We know that we will be struggling with that issue for decades. That's the question: We know what our church teaches, but do we have the will to enforce it?"

Life in the Methodist Minefield

The Rev. Julian Rush watched the headlines as 13 United Methodist pastors in the Pacific Northwest judged the fate of one of their colleagues.

Few, if any, facts were in dispute. The Rev. Karen Dammann was living openly in a lesbian relationship and leveled with her superiors. And everyone knew, after a generation of bitter strife, that their Book of Discipline banned "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from ministry, because gay sex is "incompatible with Christian teachings."

Rush wasn't surprised by the trial and he wasn't surprised by the verdict -- not guilty.

After all, he survived a similar ecclesiastical minefield two decades ago in Colorado.

"What surprised me was the way the news reports brought it all back," said Rush, 67, who rocked the whole United Methodist Church when he left the closet in 1981. "It was spooky, like a flashback. ... I remembered that whole feeling of powerlessness and total vulnerability.

"I think that's probably a good thing. No matter how much progress we've made, we need to be reminded that things aren't settled yet."

Rush eventually retired with his clergy credentials intact. In the mid-1980s, his peers in the Rocky Mountain region twice ruled that there was "insufficient evidence" to bring the AIDS activist and former youth pastor to trial. After all, church law focused on "self-avowed practicing" homosexuals and Rush simply declined to answer questions about his sex life.

"I remember my lawyer saying, 'Make them prove it,' " said Rush, whose easy-going manner still betrays his Mississippi roots. "What were they going to do, hire a private investigator? No one wanted to do such an unseemly thing."

The Dammann jury found a similar technicality. While the Discipline says "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings," the jury ruled that it never formally, legally, makes a "declaration" of this. But the jury did find this declarative statement: "Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community and the world. Thus, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.''

Based on decades of experience, Rush knows what will happen next. Furious conservatives will, on April 27, arrive at the two-week national United Methodist General Conference "with their nostrils flared and breathing fire," he said. At the same time, the confidence of the church's progressive establishment will "move up a notch or two" after a much-publicized victory. Both sides will go to Pittsburgh "with their guns loaded," he said.

The Internet is buzzing with drafts of resolutions to fix the Discipline and to force the bishops to get their flocks under control. Leaders on both sides acknowledge that the evangelical, growing churches of the heartland and Bible Belt hold a clear majority. Some of their leaders will call for repentance and reform in the Pacific Northwest.

"Fact is ... we don't need anything more in the Book of Discipline. We just need folks who are willing to abide by it or enforce it," said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president of the Good News renewal movement. "We could tweak and tighten, but unless folks are willing to abide by the will of General Conference, they will always find some words to parse or interpret differently."

Strangely enough, Rush basically agrees with this legal opinion. Laws cannot hide the fact that the United Methodist Church contains two radically different approaches to the faith, he said.

Traditionalists believe there is an "established," "infallible" and "permanent core of doctrine that people have to believe if they are going to be Christians," said Rush. But the "liberal side of the church sees itself as open and expansive and its doctrine, quite frankly, is not as well defined. It sees faith as a kind of process and it is constantly changing. ...

"One side knows how to lay down the law and the other side knows how to emote."

But the infighting will continue, said Rush, because everyone is afraid to push the scary button labeled "schism." That would be financially devastating.

"Everyone dances around that button," he said. "They really aren't trying to be clear and specific. They have to keep the Discipline vague enough to keep everyone in the tent. You end up with a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, but it holds things together."