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Anglicanism / Episcopal Church  
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Gay Activism and Conflict

The twentieth century was marked in the Episcopal Church, as in other denominations, by the rise of gay activism among church members. Glbtq Episcopalians joined with supportive friends in the organization Integrity, founded by Dr. Louie Crew in 1974. It continues its mission of offering support to members of the glbtq community and works for more inclusivity throughout the church.

Yet the greatest growth in church membership in the Anglican Communion in the twentieth century was in Third World countries, where the character of the church (responsive to local conditions) has taken on not the ethos of an East Coast metropolis, but that of fervent missionary work, particularly in competition with Islam. This cultural conflict underlies the virulently anti-homosexual views of Anglican church leaders in Africa, who have been most vociferous in their condemnation of changing attitudes toward homosexuality by Anglicans in other countries.

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In 1998, the conflict among different Anglican churches came to a head at the Lambeth Conference, a decennial gathering of the leaders of the churches comprising the Anglican Communion. After much discussion and debate, the conference adopted strongly anti-homosexual resolutions, over the objections of many bishops from Western Europe and North America.

Divisions in the Episcopal Church

Several events in the last decade have marked the efforts of the Episcopal Church to come to grips with issues affecting the glbtq community, including the ordination of openly gay clergy.

In 1996, a church trial was held of the Right Reverend Walter Righter for having ordained an openly gay man while Righter was an assistant bishop in the Diocese of New Jersey. The court dismissed the charges, finding that the Episcopal Church had no clear doctrine on this issue. The contentious issue came to a head with the consecration of Bishop Robinson in 2003, a move that exposed the deep rift in the denomination over glbtq issues.

The Episcopal Church has emerged as a deeply divided denomination. Many dioceses are led by progressive clergy and bishops, who are tolerant of homosexuality and supportive of glbtq parishioners. However, many conservative dioceses cling to traditional negative attitudes toward homosexuality and bitterly oppose the pro-gay attitudes of the liberal majority. Whether the divisions between these opposed camps can be healed is uncertain. It may be that the Episcopal Church may in effect exist as two rather distinct denominations, with attitudes toward homosexuality an important marker for a host of other differences on social and theological issues.

Out Clergy

Although the ordination of openly gay and lesbian priests remains a controversial topic, a number of ordained clergy have come out publicly. Notable Episcopal clergy who have written about the connection between their sexual identity and the Anglican tradition include the Reverend Malcolm Boyd and the Reverend Carter Heyward.

Boyd, who gained prominence for his connections to the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s in books such as Are You Running with Me, Jesus? (1977), explored his growing understanding of self in his 1986 book Gay Priest, and has been poet/writer-in-residence at the Cathedral Center of Los Angeles since l996.

Heyward, one of 11 women ordained as priests in a controversial 1974 service in Philadelphia, is a feminist theologian. She has been on the faculty of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts since 1975. She came out publicly as a lesbian in 1979 as a means of supporting Ellen Barrett, an openly lesbian woman who had been recently ordained.

Commitment and Blessing Ceremonies for Same-Sex Couples

The consecration of Bishop Robinson in November 2003 led to enormous press attention and to serious tensions both within the Episcopal Church and between the Episcopal Church and its critics in the Anglican Communion, particularly leaders of the African churches. Gathering less attention, but perhaps of equal import in the long term was a resolution acknowledging that a number of clergy and congregations in the church have held commitment and blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Although the resolution fell fall short of authorizing same-sex marriage or requiring blessings for same-sex couples (as some had hoped), it nonetheless reflects the ongoing process by which Anglican churches, since the time of Henry VIII and Richard Hooker, have sought to discern spiritual truth: by attending to the tradition of the church, the insight of scripture, and the application of reason to human experience.

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