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Group quits Episcopal church over gay bishop

PROVIDENCE -- A coalition of conservative New England Episcopalians announced yesterday that they are forming four new congregations, including two on Cape Cod, that will not be part of the Episcopal Church USA. The new group will instead seek oversight from a foreign Anglican bishop who shares their opposition to last year's consecration of a gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire.

The decision to establish the four new Anglican congregations marks the first concrete action taken in New England by Episcopalians unhappy with the election of the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire.

The new worshiping communities, which are independent of the Episcopal Church USA, have just a few dozen members and are meeting in private homes. Several similar, but smaller, home-based prayer groups have also formed. Robinson, who lives with his longtime partner, is thought to be the first bishop in Christendom to have been open about his homosexuality at the time of his selection as a bishop.

The Episcopal Church USA is the American province of the Anglican Communion, which comprises 38 provinces around the world.

At the Rhode Island Convention Center yesterday, about 270 of the conservatives gathered. The conservatives, some of whom are still members of the Episcopal Church, and some of whom have left to join a variety of existing breakaway groups or to form new ones -- assembled to launch a regional section of the Anglican Communion Network.

The national organization brings together dioceses, parishes, and individuals who call themselves ''orthodox Anglicans" and who believe that biblical strictures against homosexuality should preclude the ordination of a gay bishop.

''This church which I love has been hijacked; as a result it has lost its course as a moral leader and has become a follower of the self-indulgent trends of the times," said Mark Wimbush of Kingston, R.I.

The local conservatives, along with much of the Anglican world, are looking with hope and trepidation toward a set of recommendations, called the Windsor Report, that is to be released tomorrow in St. Paul's Cathedral Crypt in London. The report was drafted by a task force called the Lambeth Commission, appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, to offer recommendations about how to preserve the global denomination in the face of divisions over the roles of gays and lesbians in the church.

The report, according to multiple observers and press reports, is expected to please neither liberals nor conservatives. Among the possible recommendations are calls for the bishops who helped to consecrate Robinson -- including Massachusetts Bishop M. Thomas Shaw -- to apologize for the damage caused by the consecration, and for the American church essentially to promise not to ordain any more gay bishops or face suspension from the Anglican Communion. But the panel also may discourage bishops from crossing territorial boundaries -- meaning African bishops should not be offering to minister to American conservatives, as they have been doing.

The report is not expected to call for the removal of Robinson as a bishop -- there does not appear to be any practical mechanism for doing so -- nor is it likely to recommend somehow kicking the US church out of the Anglican communion.

''It is not a set of conclusions that will please everyone -- that was not why we were established," the Lambeth Commission's chairman, the Most Rev. Robert Eames, who is the archbishop of Armagh and primate of All Ireland, said last week in a speech to the Armagh Diocesan Synod. ''But it is not the bland report some feared. It has teeth. It has integrity."

Conservatives have high expectations of the report.

''It's going to be a very harsh and biting document for the American church to swallow," said Rev. William Murdoch, the dean of the New England convocation of the Anglican Communion Network.

''In the face of an institutional earthquake, when the ground is going to shake, what are we going to do?" Murdoch asked.

Murdoch said conservative Episcopalians will set about establishing more new congregations and building an organization to support ''orthodox Anglicans" in the six-state region.

The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts is one of the largest in the country, and is one of the most supportive of gay and lesbian inclusion. However, in a sharp contrast to other dioceses around the country, the bishop of the Massachusetts diocese, Shaw, has thus far succeeded in maintaining cordial relations with local conservatives, even though Shaw is considered a leading liberal voice.

In an interview last week, Shaw, whose diocese includes eastern Massachusetts, said he does not expect dramatic change, at least in the short term, to result from the Windsor Report.

He said the Lambeth Commission is making recommendations that will be considered by a variety of Anglican panels over the coming months. In the Anglican Communion, neither those panels nor the Archbishop of Canterbury have the power to force the American church to do anything, although they could sever their relationship with the Episcopal Church USA.

''The report is not going to radically change the Anglican Communion as of Oct. 18, but it will provide an opportunity to look at how we're going to be the Anglican Church for the 21st Century," Shaw said. ''There probably will be some things that will upset people. . . about issues around human sexuality, and things that will upset people who are more conservative, because I'm pretty sure it will talk about the integrity of our province (and will not create a separate province in this country for Episcopalians who don't go along with Gene Robinson."

The leaders of the New England convocation are predominantly from Massachusetts and represent a vocal minority within the diocese. They include Murdoch, who is the rector of All Saints Church in West Newbury, the Rev. Jurgen Liias, the rector of Christ Church in Hamilton and Wenham, and the Rev. Len Cowan, the rector of Church of the Nativity in Northborough. According to organizers, 57 percent of those who gathered yesterday were from Massachusetts. Among those in attendance yesterday was the retired bishop of North Dakota, the Right Rev. Andrew Fairfield, who is now living in Shutesbury and said he is supporting, but not overseeing, the local conservative Episcopalians.

''The church is in the midst of a radical realignment and reformation," Cowan said. ''In the midst of turmoil, a call has gone forth from God to all faithful, orthodox Christians to stand together."

The four new congregations are in Orleans, Forestdale -- a village of Sandwich -- and in Durham and Rochester, N.H.

''Minneapolis [where Robinson's election was approved] was the straw the broke the camel's back, a manifestation of the low view of Scripture and the creeping Unitarian-Universalism in the Episcopal Church," said Gerry Dorman, who left his parish, Holy Spirit in Orleans, to become senior warden of the new Anglican Church of the Resurrection.

The new church had been holding Friday afternoon prayer services since Robinson's election, and began holding Sunday worship in June. Dorman said the congregation, which meets in his house, has 15 or 16 members, and has had visiting Episcopal priests from Connecticut, Virginia and Pennsylvania, but also has had non-Episcopal clergy preside. ''We tried to stay inside for a long time, but we were left with no hope."

Members of the Forestdale congregation, called the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, expressed similar sentiments. ''We are the people that did not leave because of prayer book changes, did not leave because of the ordination of women, but the Episcopal Church is becoming more like Unitarians," said Edward Wirtanen of West Barnstable.

Robert Kahl of East Falmouth said, ''we are not antigay -- we welcome gay members -- but if a person is gay they should be admonished to live a celibate lifestyle. . . . We follow an orthodox tradition, rather than a new world, revisionist philosophy."

And Raymond Lang, of Osterville, said, ''I don't believe that you adapt the Bible to social customs."

Michael Paulson can be reached at 

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