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Eight Virginia Parishes Vote to Break from Episcopal Church

December 18, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Following services this weekend, eight parishes in Virginia announced they will break away from the Episcopal Church over a number of issues, including homosexuality.

Afterward, the Reverend John Yates, director of the historic Falls Church in Virginia, discussed his parish’s decision.

REV. JOHN YATES, The Falls Church: It’s a clear, decisive majority. I must say that, as I was looking out as the people this morning and giving the announcement, my eyes focused on an older lady for whom this is a very painful thing, a lady I’ve known for almost 30 years.

It’s not an easy decision for any of us. It is not something that was envisioned on-the-go. It’s something that we feel we have gradually realized we have had to do.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for a look at these divisions and what they might mean for the umbrella worldwide Anglican community and for other denominations, I’m joined by Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service.

Welcome.

KEVIN ECKSTROM, Religion News Service: Thanks for having me.

GWEN IFILL: How long has this been brewing?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: The most immediate crisis has been brewing probably for the last four or five years, most recently since 2003, when the church allowed an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

But if you look back further, these tensions have really had their roots in the last 30 years, when the church decided to ordain women as priests. And that’s when you really saw the sort of the conservative-liberal fissure erupt, and this is sort of the latest incarnation of that. But, I mean, this is a new problem with old roots.

GWEN IFILL: We talked about these eight parishes in Virginia, but this isn’t just happening in Virginia. This is happening in other places around the country, as well?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: Absolutely. It’s going on in Texas, in California. In California, you have the Diocese of San Joaquin, which is in Fresno, which has taken steps to be the first diocese to leave the church. And that’s talking 10,000 people.

But, yes, it’s going on across the country, you know, left, right, middle, all over the place.

Addressing homosexuality at church

GWEN IFILL: If you had to quantify, if it's even possible, what the roots of this dispute are, you mentioned the first gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, also the first bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, Schori. So are those the two things which are sticking in the craws of most conservative Episcopalians?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: I think there's three things. Homosexuality, in the place of gays and lesbians in the church, is the big issue.

Right behind that and sort of in the background looming over all of this would be the authority of scripture. You know, what they mean by that is, how much weight does the Bible have in deciding these questions?

Do we take the Bible at its word or do we factor in other things like human experience and, you know, the gay and lesbian people that we know? And, you know, do we take a more sort of broad view of things? That's sort of looming over all of this.

But the third thing is, I think, just really growing impatience. The conservatives have looked at their church, where it's gone over the last 10, 20, 30 years, and they don't like where it's going. And they have realized that it's not going to change, that the church is on a certain trajectory, and it's unlikely to change much.

And so I think they've just pretty much gotten frustrated, thrown up their hands, and now they're walking out the door.

GWEN IFILL: So when you vote to leave the church, where do they go?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: Well, that's the question, because the conservatives who are wanting to leave want to stay in their pews, in their church, and, you know, next to the graveyard where their grandmother is buried. And the big question is going to be: What happens to them? Do they get to stay in those buildings or do they have to find somewhere else to meet?

The courts on this question have been pretty much decidedly in the favor of the denomination. So the internal rules say that the church building is held in trust for the denomination. You can't take it with you. So, therefore, you have to go. So that's sort of the logistical question.

Now, organizationally, what these churches have done is aligned themselves with a bishop in Nigeria, Peter Akinola. He's sort of the ring leader of the conservative movement.

And what he has done is sort of done a reverse missionary movement, and he sent a bishop over here, much like we sent missionaries to Africa in the last century, and he has appointed one of these Virginia pastors actually as his bishop to shepherd the conservatives, so it's not quite clear where they're going to end up.

Other denominations

GWEN IFILL: There are 77 million Anglicans worldwide, and the United States Episcopalians are really just a fraction of that. So are they out of step with the worldwide church?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: You could say that. And I think they might even agree -- the rank-and-file Episcopal Church might agree with that. They might say that they're out in front of the rest of the church.

But, yes, there are 2.3 million Episcopalians in the United States. That's a drop in the bucket. The Anglican Church of Nigeria that we just talked about I think has 17 million or 18 million.

So if you look at the numbers, yes, the U.S. church is a distinct minority, but they carry a lot of cultural weight within the communion and a lot of financial weight. A lot of the projects in Africa, in Nigeria, in these other really conservative places are funded by the U.S. church.

GWEN IFILL: Is this a debate and a dispute that's unique to the Episcopal Church or are there other denominations having the same kinds of debates?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: There are other denominations -- Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists -- who are watching the Episcopalians very closely. And what sets Episcopalians apart is that they've actually gone and done something about this.

A lot of churches or denominations want to study this to death or send it to a task force or, you know, create a study on it, not really deal with the issues. But the Episcopalians -- I think to their credit -- have sort of taken this bull by the horns and said, "OK, we're going to go and ordain a gay bishop and see what happens," or, "We're going to allow same-sex unions and see what happens." And now we're seeing actually what's happened, and it's been pretty miserable for them.

Mediating and moving forward

GWEN IFILL: And the spiritual leader is the archbishop of Canterbury. Does he get to be the great broker in all of this, or is it even possible that anything can be brokered at this stage?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: A lot of people would like him to be, but he has no direct authority. He's not an Anglican pope. You can't tell the U.S. church what to do or what not to do.

The best he can try to do is sort of be a peace-mediator, and try to bring the sides together, and, say, "OK, let's try to work something out." But, no, he doesn't have any authority.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like he has said, on one hand, there is room, let's talk about this, let's reason together. And, on the other hand, it also sounds like he's asking the U.S. tribe, basically, to step back.

KEVIN ECKSTROM: Right, and he has, and because, you know, he has his own pressures. He has the pressures of the bulk of the communion -- those 77 million members -- who are telling him to do the opposite.

So, you know, in the whole grand scheme of things, his hands are really tied. There's not much he can do, even though he probably would like to.

GWEN IFILL: And what are we watching now? We were watching for what would happen here in Virginia or near here in Virginia. And we are watching what happened with the diocese in California, which voted to pull back. Is there another key place we should be watching for?

KEVIN ECKSTROM: The next place you want to watch is the courts, which is where this is all likely to end up. And that's where you're going to have the property fights. That's where you're going to have the denomination going to suit against the dissident groups, saying, "Who controls all of this?"

And, you know, we're not just talking about property, but we're talking about lots and lots and lots of money. The Episcopal Church is a very -- I don't want to call them a wealthy church, but there's a lot of money tied up here. And so that's the next stage of where this is going to go.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Kevin Eckstrom, thank you very much.

KEVIN ECKSTROM: You're very welcome.