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In South, Episcopal schism pondered

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Sundays haven't been quite the same at Christ Church Greenville since the Episcopal Church USA approved the election of a gay bishop in faraway New Hampshire.

Sure, the pews are still packed with many of Greenville's movers and shakers, the old-fashioned bells still ring at the consecration of the Eucharist, and the girls' choir still sings at the end of a worship service in the brick Gothic church on the eastern edge of downtown.

But the familiar liturgy can't hide an unfamiliar tension in this vibrant parish, a tension that breaks through in one of the prayers of petition read during the service.

"We pray for the unity of the Anglican Communion," a priest intones, "and for peace in the Middle East."

Christ Church, and hundreds of churches like it throughout the Southeast and in other parts of the nation, represent the next frontier in the debate over the future, and possible fracturing, of the Episcopal Church.

Parishioners here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and throughout this region, overwhelmingly believe the Episcopal Church made a huge mistake in August by consenting to the election of a noncelibate gay bishop in New Hampshire, and by declaring that Episcopal parishes "are operating within the bounds of our common life" when they bless same-sex unions.

But the parishes, like Christ Church Greenville, that oppose the actions of the denomination's general convention are deeply divided over what to do now.

Should they simply accept that theirs is now a minority view within the national denomination? Should they push the global Anglican Communion to somehow rebuke or punish the Episcopal Church? Or is the only answer to press for some kind of realignment or schism that would create a new Anglican province in America where traditional practices would be the rule?

"Clearly a great majority disagree with the actions of the general convention," said M. Susie White, the chairwoman of a Christ Church Greenville task force set up to respond to the actions of the national church. "But in that great majority, there is no agreement about how to respond, or whether a response is even needed."

The dioceses of central Florida, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, and South Carolina have already held special conventions to repudiate the actions taken by the national church in Minneapolis in August.

This week, starting on Tuesday, conservative Episcopalians from around the nation will gather in Dallas to air their grievances and prepare for possible realignment of the denomination. And many conservative Episcopalians have placed their hopes on Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the leader of the 70-million-member Anglican Communion, who has summoned the 38 Anglican primates from around the world to London on Oct. 15-16 to consider a response to the crisis.

Christ Church, whose 4,000 members comprise the sixth-largest Episcopal church in the nation, is neither the most conservative nor the most liberal of Episcopal churches in the South, and in many ways the congregation embodies the uncomfortable options for the many who rue the actions of their national church but do not want to leave it.

The rector here, the Rev. Robert S. Dannals, as well as the bishop, Dorsey F. Henderson Jr., opposed the election of a gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex unions, but both also oppose schism in the Episcopal Church. As a result, they are under fire from left and right.

"I know this congregation, and seven out of 10 people here are . . . not in agreement with the two primary decisions of the general convention, but a very important 30 percent are either very moderate about what happened or are actually in favor," Dannals said. "Episcopal parishes and dioceses need to attempt to respect and honor the diversity within our church, including those who are conservative. And we need to be profoundly open to gays and lesbians, as we should be to everybody."

As he tries to keep his church together, Dannals has held three town hall style meetings, each attended by about 500 parishioners; has devoted a section of the church library to resources on sexuality; and in late October plans to lead a four-week seminar on sexuality, ordination, and blessings. Even as he prepares to send a delegation to Dallas this week, he insists that it is merely a "fact-finding mission" and will not support "anything that's schismatic."

Christ Church is a booming parish, with five worship services each Sunday. Many of the parishioners, among them Greenville's mayor, are affluent and well-educated. Discourse, even about a controversial subject such as homosexuality, is civil. Words are carefully chosen.

Here in the Bible Belt, Episcopalians are often more theologically conservative than elsewhere in the nation, but less so than the Southern Baptists and other evangelical Protestants who dominate this region's religious landscape.

And Greenville is no isolated backwater. Located in the fast-growing Piedmont region, it is home to BMW's only US production facility, and the tree-lined Main Street in Greenville features not only a restaurant specializing in spoon bread, a traditional Southern delicacy, but an upscale Thai restaurant and an Asian healing arts studio.

There are three gay bars here, but gays and lesbians say this can be a difficult place to live. In 1996, the county council passed a resolution declaring homosexuality "incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes," causing the US Olympic Committee to shroud the Olympic torch in a van as it passed through Greenville County.

And two years later, Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist college based here, sent a letter to a gay alumnus warning him that "as long as you are living as a homosexual, you, of course, would not be welcome on the campus and would be arrested for trespassing if you did visit."

Shortly after this year's national convention of Episcopalians, the vestry at Christ Church issued a statement condemning the actions, saying, "We uphold the sanctity of Christian marriage, the traditional unit of husband and wife as foundational for a wholesome society." The vestry has also stopped sending a portion of its collection to the national church -- the church used to send $65,000 a year to national headquarters -- although it has given the address of the denomination to parishioners who still want to make a donation.

Church officials believe that a silent majority of parishioners are unhappy about the Episcopal Church's stance on homosexuality, but do not want to leave the denomination over that issue. And many parishioners clearly wish the issue would just go away.

"My take is that what the national church does, and what the Diocese of New Hampshire does, doesn't have a lot to do with what I do in Greenville, South Carolina," said Cecil H. Nelson Jr., a 57-year-old bow-tied attorney who works out of an abandoned cigar factory that has been refurbished into a postmodern office building, with copies of Architectural Digest sandwiched between Southern Living and Southern Accents in the waiting area.

Nelson, who is leading a $15 million capital campaign for Christ Church, said he believes it was a mistake for the denomination to elect a gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire, and that he believes the leadership of the Episcopal Church has lost touch with its members in the South. But, he said, "I would like to see the brain trust of the Episcopal Church, if we have one, hammer out some resolution so we can move beyond who is the bishop of New Hampshire."

"I've heard people say they don't know if they still feel comfortable taking Communion, and I think to myself, `Give me a break,' " Nelson said. "Is it Bishop Robinson in the Communion, or Jesus Christ?"

Louise E. Oxner, a third-generation member of Christ Church who is the only woman ever to serve as the church's senior warden, which is the top lay post in an Episcopal church, takes a similar tack. Oxner compares the debate over the role of gays in the denomination to the 1970s debate over the ordination of women in the church, pointing out that Christ Church Greenville was years behind the national church in accepting women as priests and integrating women into lay leadership roles, but that now women are fully accepted here.

"To divide over this issue is ridiculous," she said. "I do not want to see a split in our church, because I think we're more effective as a total body. And I think we're more alike than we are different."

But a large number of parishioners here, and throughout the South, say they just cannot reconcile themselves to being part of the denomination now.

"What I hear the church now saying, officially and nationally, is that what we've said for 2,000 years we no longer believe, and that's a massive, mammoth change," said Sarah V. Hey, a 34-year-old parishioner. "If Sally Jessy Raphael and Jerry Springer are going to tell us what's OK, we're in the weeds."

Hey, who grew up attending an independent evangelical church in Mississippi, said she is actively considering leaving the Episcopal Church. But she said that even thinking about leaving causes her pain; at times, she finds herself crying at Sunday worship services.

Three families have already left Christ Church: two in protest of the national church's decision to approve a gay bishop, and one in protest of the local church's decision to criticize that approval.

"The sexuality issue is not a central tenet of my faith -- it's just not that important to me -- and other things are much more important: doing the mission of Christ, serving the poor and the needy and those that are hurting," said Russell Stall, who resigned from the vestry and the church three weeks ago.

"I just don't feel like sexuality is the key issue," he said. "The key issue is inclusiveness, and loving our neighbors as ourselves."

Last Sunday, Dannals and several parishioners from Christ Church traveled across town to a new Episcopal church, St. Philip's, in a historically African-American neighborhood, to join about 75 people representing Episcopal parishes along the Reedy River in a conversation with Henderson, the bishop of upper South Carolina. Over the course of several hours, Henderson fielded angry questions from Episcopalians who want him to lead their churches out of the denomination and those who don't.

The mild-mannered bishop, who often stared at the floor as he spoke, insisted that despite his dismay at the national church actions, the only way forward is together. "The matter of unity is very important to me and was very important to the Lord."

"There are 23,000 Christian denominations in the world -- can you imagine the power of our witness if we were one body?" he said, as liberals, moderates, and conservatives sat arrayed before him in spare wooden pews, facing a shimmering golden banner depicting Mary and an infant Jesus. "Our prayer for unity is not so we can be warm and fuzzy, but is based on the Holy Spirit. The Episcopal Church needs all of its voices."

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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