Despite divisions nationally, local Episcopal Church split unlikely

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Despite divisions nationally, local Episcopal Church split unlikely

By MARK ALLWOOD mallwood@beaufortgazette.com 843-986-5538
Published Saturday, December 13, 2008 in The Beaufort Gazette  |  1145 Words  |  features/religionnews

Last month, the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, became the fourth American Episcopal diocese to formally break away from the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, in a long-simmering feud over Biblical authority that included the 2003 consecration of the church's first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, of New Hampshire.
Although discussions are ongoing, Bishop Mark Joseph Lawrence, of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina in Charleston, said the state diocese does not plan to join the newly formed Anglican Church in North America.
"I anticipate the Diocese of South Carolina holding to the faith that is revealed in Holy Scripture, defending that and moving forward with the mission of the church here and throughout the world," Lawrence said. "This is not just a national church issue. It is an issue for the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part. I think (the split) was primarily because many of the leaders of the Episcopal Church have been tone deaf to the needs of the conservative parishioners and clergy. I know many of the players involved, and I understand their distress and concerns."
The Rev. Jeffrey S. Miller is the rector at the Parish Church of St. Helena (Episcopal) and also serves on the standing committee of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. He said any decision by his congregation to leave the Episcopal Church must be made by the state diocese.
"We will make those decisions as a diocese, and then we'll bring them back, and we'll talk with the parish about those," said Miller.
In addition to the Dioceses of Forth Worth, dozens of individual parishes in the U.S. and Canada have joined the splinter group, including Dioceses in Pittsburgh, Quincy, Ill., and San Joaquin, Calif.
"We are in disagreement with the national Episcopal Church on a lot of issues, but if you're asking the question are we planning to leave, no, there's been no plans to leave," said Miller. "Our first loyalty in the Diocese of South Carolina and at St. Helena is to Jesus Christ and to the Holy Scriptures. As long as we can continue to remain within the Episcopal Church and be faithful to those things, that's where the diocese is right now. That's what we will continue to do. It's developing. There's not much more that I can say than that."
Like Lawrence, Miller said disagreements with the Episcopal Church have been brewing for some time now, so he was not surprised to hear about the formation of a splinter group.
"This is nothing new," said Miller. "It was to be expected, and nobody knows how it's going to affect us right now."
However, Miller stressed that the rift within the national Episcopal Church is not just about the consecration of openly gay bishops.
"I think that that's oversimplifying it," said Miller. "The primary disagreement that we have with them is over Biblical authority (and) whether or not the Bible is authoritative for our lives, period, and that affects any number of areas. Of course, everyone wants to zero in on the sex because that's the raciest thing, but that's just a symptom. Roman Catholics have always appealed to the Pope for their authority. Anglicans, traditionally, have appealed to the Scripture, so that's the issue."
Lawrence agreed.
"The issue is, has God revealed Himself through Holy Scripture in a way that is authoritative for people in all places and times or whether it is all very fluid, and so any particular person or church interprets things in a way that puts it in opposition to the church's beliefs for 2,000 years," he said.
Father Johnnie M. Davis is the rector at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Ridgeland. While he said that he believed that it took a lot of courage to break from the Episcopal Church, he does not plan on following suit.
"My personal opinion is that I don't agree with it totally because I'm ordained as an Episcopal priest within the Episcopal Church in America, and for good or bad, this is still my church, and I don't intend to leave it," said Davis. "But I think that there's a strong feeling in our diocese that the Episcopal Church, as we know it -- at least in terms of its higher leadership on a national level -- has not kept to the historical faith. That's pretty clear from everything I read and everything I hear."
Davis added that he has not heard anyone in his congregation voice any concerns about the split.
"I think that the majority of our people are committed to being a part of the Anglican Communion worldwide," said Davis. "At the same time, I don't think there's anybody here who wants to leave the Episcopal Church. If so, I have not heard anybody give voice to that or take that kind of action."
Bishop Robert Duncan of the breakaway Diocese of Pittsburgh is the proposed new leader of the new Anglican Church in North America. All four breakaway dioceses have aligned themselves temporarily with the Province of the Southern Cone in Argentina while leaders work to establish a conservative province of the Anglican Communion in the United States.
Several Episcopal dioceses, including the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, have announced that church leaders can bless the unions of same-sex couples as a matter of policy. The 2006 General Convention -- the governing body of the Episcopal Church -- affirmed "support of gay and lesbian persons and children of God" and opposes any state or federal constitutional amendment that prohibits same-sex civil marriages or civil unions.
Davis said the Book of Genesis was clear about Christian marriage being between a man and a woman, and he said this tenet was further supported by Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Mark. He believes anything other than marriage between a man and a woman is not what God intended, but he is careful not to judge people.
"I have seen a number of people who are in same-sex relationships who are deeply committed and very loving people in that relationship over a long period of time," said Davis, "so as far as the judgment kind of stuff, I don't get into that. That's up to God. It's not up to me to decide."
As for the consecration of openly gay bishops in the Episcopal Church, Lawrence said he believed the Holy Scripture is "pretty clear" on the matter.
"While everyone is welcome to come to Christ and into His kingdom, there are certain standards by which those who are ordained ought to meet, and the church needs to uphold those standards," said Lawrence. "A gay person who is in a partnered relationship does not meet those standards."