BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Faith communities across the spectrum have been arguing about homosexuality -- none more so than the Episcopal Church USA. And once again, debates about gays and lesbians are expected to dominate the Episcopal General Convention, which begins in Columbus, Ohio, this coming week. The denomination has been divided since the last General Convention in 2003, when delegates voted to approve a gay bishop and to permit blessings of same-sex couples. Those actions have threatened schism across the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church USA is the American branch of that communion. Kim Lawton sets the stage for this convention.
KIM LAWTON: A late spring picnic at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Three years ago, this congregation was in turmoil after the General Convention approved Gene Robinson as the denomination's first openly gay bishop. There were heated debates over homosexuality -- and many strained relationships. The parish still hasn't come down firmly on one side or the other, but members say they've learned to stay together despite their strong differences.
RIKER PURCELL (Parishioner, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA): We had some wonderful conversations after things sort of blew up. People got to know each other better and got to understand each other's positions better and understanding the difficulties of living in community.
TIM MCCOY (Parishioner, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church): I still do not like the sin, but that doesn't mean that I can't live with the sinner and appreciate the sinner.
LAWTON: Some are wondering whether this General Convention will upset the delicate balance they've managed to achieve.
WILLIAM DUKE (Parishioner, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church): All my life, I've heard the General Conventions mess things up. And I imagine they'll mess some things up here, but this is part of the existence of the church.
LAWTON: After the last General Convention, the Diocese of Virginia held a series of meetings about the controversy.
Members of Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, are united in their outrage over what happened.
ERNIE WAKEHAM (Parishioner, Truro Church, Fairfax, VA): I'm Ernie Wakeham from Truro Church. For those of us who believe that homosexual sex is a sin, you have placed us in a terrible position.
LAWTON: Truro and its rector, Martyn Minns, have become active in a network of conservatives urging the Episcopal Church USA to repent for its actions. People here say whether Truro remains part of the Episcopal Church will depend on whether this General Convention takes a position in support of gay issues.
Canon MARTYN MINNS (Truro Church): It's a battle that we've been fighting for way too long. And I think the time has come for those who believe this is what they need to do, they need to get on with it. And for those of us who cannot, we need to be given the freedom to not have to follow that path.
LAWTON: As bishops, clergy, and lay delegates head to this General Convention, there's a lot at stake. There are many items on the agenda, including the election of a new presiding bishop. But the most high-profile issues surround homosexuality. What the convention does will affect the unity of local parishes, the national denomination, and the entire worldwide Anglican Communion.
It's been a tumultuous three years since the last General Convention approved Bishop Robinson's consecration and voted to permit the blessing of same-sex unions. That set off a firestorm of controversy in the U.S. church and across the 77 million-member Anglican Communion. Leaders of more conservative Anglican churches in Africa, Asia, and South America accused the Episcopal Church of disregarding Scripture and centuries of church teachings.
Robinson says Episcopalians were interpreting Scripture for their own time and context. He likens the debate to the fight over the ordination of women 30 years ago. But he admits he's been surprised by the level of international furor that this has provoked.
Bishop V. GENE ROBINSON (Diocese of New Hampshire): I think all of us underestimated both the breadth and depth of the controversy that would ensue. It has been a source of great pain to me to see it happening. It doesn't make me wish that I hadn't followed what I discerned to be God's call.
LAWTON: Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, appointed a special commission to study how schism could be avoided. Its report called on the U.S. church to express its regret and impose an indefinite moratorium on gay bishops and same-sex blessings until some new consensus emerges.
The U.S. bishops have issued a statement expressing regret for the pain inflicted by their actions. But this General Convention will be the first time the Episcopal Church makes an official response.
Virginia Bishop Peter Lee has tried to find a middle ground.
Bishop PETER LEE (Diocese of Virginia): I think this convention will take steps that will indicate, number one, that we in the Episcopal Church want to be part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and secondly, that we're willing to take steps to respect the concerns and the point of view of Anglicans elsewhere in the world.
LAWTON: At issue is how far respect should go in a communion where each national church is autonomous. Robinson believes no further apologies are necessary.
Bishop ROBINSON: One can't be sorry for following what one discerns to be God's will for us at any given time. Are we sorry that it's caused pain and disruption? Absolutely. I still worry about that every day. At the same time, sometimes God calls us to places that are going to be controversial.