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Interfaith voices strong in support, but church members fear divisions

By Michelle Gabriel
8/6/2003
[Convention Daily]  Throughout this General Convention, church leaders have encouraged people to break down walls. But on the day the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson became a bishop, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik told Episcopalians to respect fences.

“I strongly believe religious fences make respectful neighbors,” said Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said Tuesday. “It is inappropriate for another faith community to make a judgment about a different faith community.”

As Episcopalians grow increasingly anxious about the ability of their church to withstand the backlash surrounding Robinson’s consecration, interfaith leaders stressed understanding.

“We are a diverse people and there are different perspectives on the religious spectrum,” Potasnik said. “There is no unity of thought, [but] I know there is a unity of spirit.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with which Episcopalians are in full communion, is not interested in breaking ties under any circumstances, said spokesman John Brooks.

“There will be some members of our denomination who will be concerned if he is confirmed, and there are some who will rejoice,” Brooks said. “[But] we have a full communion relationship with the Episcopal Church that continues to grow, and we expect it to continue to bear fruit.”

The ELCA is holding its national assembly in Milwaukee next week, where representatives will discuss – and issue a statement about – sexuality in the church. Brooks said Robinson’s confirmation will probably factor into the discussion.

University of South Carolina Professor Janice Love recently led a dialogue within the United Methodist Church about the effects of homosexuality on church unity. “I think, clearly, within most churches, homosexuality is one of the most divisive issues that the church is facing right now,” Love said.

The United Methodist Church has a different stance on homosexuality than the Episcopal Church. Love said the Methodist Church’s law forbids the church from ordaining practicing, noncelibate homosexuals and from using church facilities for same-gender blessing ceremonies.

“[But] there is a rule that people are of sacred worth and that churches should be welcoming of gays and lesbians,” Love said. “It is a stance that differentiates welcoming people into the folds of the church and who is allowed to be ordained.”

But Love said she doubts any reaction to Robinson’s consecration will be substantial. “It will be by no means a catastrophe,” she said.

But the Rev. David Anderson, president of the American Anglican Communion, said Tuesday night’s decision will cause immediate, divisive reaction from the worldwide Anglican Communion. “I believe the primates will be sending letters to the Episcopal Church, saying ‘We will not break bread with you anymore,'” Anderson said.

He also said: “I am deeply disappointed in the actions that the bishops took. It’s a shattering of the Episcopal Church and the first step of the global church and the Episcopal Church falling apart.”

Anderson said Robinson’s consent signaled a shifting of priorities in Church. “It sends a message that the Episcopal Church’s standards have changed; that they are progay, ready to advocate the gay agenda,” he said.

But the Rev. Susan Russell, executive director of Claiming the Blessing, said she feels “overwhelming joy and emotion for the new adventure ahead. ... How grateful I am to be a part of a church that can [confront] these issues.”

In response to claims that Robinson’s consent is a violation of the Gospel, she said: “In the final analysis, God is less interested in who we love than do we love.”

Integrity President the Rev. Michael Hopkins said he empathized with those who opposed the decision. “I understand how it feels to feel like the church has been taken away from you,” Hopkins said.

But Hopkins said Robinson’s consent is not a usurping of power by an opposition group, but a chance for supporters to “find a common place in the mainstream of the Church,” he said.

David Robinson, a deputy from Rochester, considered the decision  “bittersweet.”

“I’ve been hoping and praying for this decision for a long time,” Robinson said. “On the other hand, there is a sadness in that decision. … It’s incredibly painful for the people who disagree with that. They have very hard decisions to make now: Where is their place in the church?”

But Robinson said he hopes that all Episcopalians embrace opponents of the consent. “Hopefully they hear from everybody that their place is here in the church, that their voices still need to be heard,” he said.