Tim Drake

Wednesday, August 06, 2003
Exodus: Episcopal Controversy Leads Some to Rome
Features Correspondent

CONCORD, N.H. – Tensions are guaranteed to be high when the Episcopal General Convention meets in Minneapolis on July 28. The church is in crisis.

In May, Jeffrey John was appointed to head the Anglican diocese of Reading, England. Just one month later, across the Atlantic, Gene Robinson was elected Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. Both men describe themselves as homosexuals.

Their appointments have caused divisions in the Anglican church and its American counterpart. Furthermore, the Anglican Communion’s move away from orthodoxy has also led some of her members to consider the claims of Catholicism.

Rev. John withdrew his name from consideration July 6 citing Church unity.

Historically, the Anglican Communion has opposed homosexual relations. At its 1998 Lambeth Conference – a meeting of all of the world’s Anglican bishops - the southern provinces (Africa, Asia and Latin America) outvoted the northern provinces 527 to 69 to approve a resolution calling homosexual acts “incompatible with Scripture.” That declaration also opposed the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of actively homosexual clergy.

Yet, individual parishes in England, the United States and Canada have ignored the resolutions, blessing same-sex unions and ordaining actively homosexual clergy under the rubrics of what is described as a “local option.”

Bishop Jeffrey John told The Times of London that he has been in a homosexual relationship for 27 years, but claims that the relationship is celibate. Gene Robinson said that he “came out” as a homosexual in 1986 and soon after divorced his wife, with whom he had two daughters.

Robinson, running against three other candidates, won the majority vote of 58 of 77 clergy members and 96 of 165 lay representatives in his election in May. However, before he can take office, his election must be ratified by a majority of U.S. Episcopal dioceses. If he is confirmed he would be the ninth bishop of New Hampshire.

The moves have led to a dispute within the Anglican Communion – a church body made up of 79 million members. Sixteen of the Church of England’s bishops wrote an open letter expressing their concern over the action, some calling for Bishop John to resign his post.

They warned that it could divide the church.

The Archbishop of the West Indies and the Primate of Nigeria have both called for Bishop John to step down. In addition, fourteen Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic Global South Primates have declared themselves in "broken communion" with the Diocese of New Westminster.

North and the South
“The split has become a fissure that is going to wrench the whole Anglican community apart,” said David Virtue, an Evangelical Anglican and critic of the actions. Virtue operates Virtuosity – a West Chester, Pa.-based orthodox Anglican news service.

“If the Anglican Communion dies, we will have a federation,” he said.

Virtue is not alone in predicting a schism. Lee Penn, a convert from the Episcopal church to the Eastern Rite Russian Catholic Church in 1995 believes that the division could lead to a “true schism between the rich, northern provinces and the poor, southern provinces.”

“Following the 1998 Lambeth Conference, Trinity Parish located on Wall Street decided to withhold some of their funding of the poor southern provinces,” said Virtue. “They were saying, ‘You didn’t do what we told you to do, so we aren’t going to give you any more money.”

Virtue said that the divide is not about gender, but rather over the authority of Scripture.

“Do we adhere to Scripture or not?” asked Virtue. “The southern global provinces are saying, ‘Yes, we do,” and the north is saying, ‘We do not.’”

“Revisionists are trying to tell God that he needs to change his mind about sex,” said Virtue. “If we can change that we can change anything.”

One thing is for certain. The dispute is leading some Anglicans to look elsewhere.

“My sense, based upon what I hear from other conservative Anglicans, is that the controversy is starting to push people out,” said Penn, who resides in San Francisco. “There is an acceleration in the breakup of the Anglican Communion and an increasing defection to other denominations.”

Membership statistics demonstrate that the Episcopal Church USA has decreased from approximately 2.5 million in the early to mid-1990s to 2.3 million today.

When it comes to abandoning the Anglican church, Virtue explained that there are four common options available to Anglicans – the Anglican Continuing Church movement, the Anglican Mission in America (AMIA), Orthodoxy, or the Catholic Church.

Of those options the AMIA has had some success in attracting disgruntled Episcopalians.

“The AMIA is a mission based in South Carolina that is trying to rescue Anglicanism from the liberals,” explained Virtue. “They have a couple of bishops and are creating mission parishes in the U.S.” At present the AMIA is comprised of approximately 51 parishes and 12,500 people. “When a parish joins the AMIA,” said Virtue, “they take the whole congregation with them.”

Still, others are headed toward Rome.

The exodus from the Anglican Communion to Catholicism has been a steady trend that the Coming Home Network – a non-profit organization that assists Protestant clergy considering entering the Catholic Church – has kept abreast of over the past decade.

Crossing the Tiber
In 2001, the organization noted at least eight Episcopal clergy converts. Last year there were 14. The network received their largest group of inquirers in 1995, when they were contacted by 49 Episcopal clergy, all of whom later converted.

The Coming Home Network also noted that the largest denomination represented by their members is the Episcopal church.

“We are in contact with 149 Episcopal clergy,” said Jim Anderson, assistant director for the Zanesville, Ohio-based Coming Home Network. “Of those, 111 have converted to Catholicism and 39 are still on the journey.”

Among the converts, one of the most recent is Jeffrey Hopper of Abilene, Texas. Ordained an Episcopal priest in December 1988, Hopper served as a military chaplain.

He entered the Catholic Church on June 1 and has already begun the pastoral provision process to be considered as a candidate to the Catholic priesthood.

Hopper told the Register that the impetus for his spiritual search was the moral breakdown in the Episcopal church.

“I finally realized that you can’t change Church doctrines with a 51% vote,” said Hopper. “Once the Anglican Communion began allowing female ordination in the 1970s it seemed natural that homosexual ordination would be next. If you can compromise on one standard, why can’t you compromise on another?”

He said the decision didn’t come easily. At one point, a colleague asked him, “If all of the people who believe as we do leave, who will be left?”

“At some point you have to ask is this the Church?” said Hopper. “Cardinal Newman said that to be deep in history is to cease being Protestant.”

Hopper said he knows of other clergy who feel similarly.

“While at a recent clergy conference I encountered two other Episcopal priests who were considering leaving the church. They had the same concerns,” said Hopper.

As important as the crises are, they are not the sole reason for conversion.

“Crises in the Episcopal Church are common, and in one sense it was the passing succession of theological controversies that kept me in the Anglican Communion for so long,” said Dr. Gregory Elder, who was ordained in the Episcopal church in 1983.

“As a priest and pastor, I was concerned about the spiritual lives of the Episcopalians to whom I ministered,” he added.

Elder was received into the Catholic Church at Easter and currently serves as associate professor of history, philosophy and religious studies at Riverside Community College in Moreno Valley, Calif.

David Mills, a Catholic convert and editor with Touchstone magazine, agreed.

“I could have joined another Anglican body,” said Mills, “but I was never really a convinced Anglican.” “For others who were, the collapse of the Episcopal Church has showed them that there really is only one Catholic Church, and they aren’t in it.”

Copyright 2003. Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota. Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register, July 13-19, 2003. All rights reserved.

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