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Episcopal Church faces divisive issues at national convention
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The Very Rev. Spenser Simrill greets parishoners after Sunday services at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. "We believe that God is speaking a new word, to honor people who are sexually oriented at an early age towards members of the same sex," he told the congregation. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
The American Episcopal Church is facing a political and theological battle over homosexuality. At issue is the confirmation of a gay bishop-elect of New Hampshire, and the blessing of same sex unions. The two issues are threatening to fracture the Episcopal church during its General Convention being held this week in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The Rev. Canon David Anderson is a conservative member of the Episcopal Church. He says this year's votes over same sex unions and the installation of an openly gay bishop threaten church unity.

"If the Episcopal Church takes action which is schismatic from the communion, and takes the whole Episcopal Church over Niagara Falls, we've got to make hard decisions," said Anderson. "I don't know what those decisions will be, but we're going to have to make really hard decisions."

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Image A church divided?

Anderson is a priest and president of the American Anglican Council. The group recently released a statement saying approval of the actions would "shatter the church." Some see the Council's action as an indication they might leave the church. Religion professor Jim Hanson of St. Olaf College in Northfield says the Council's statement could simply be a strategy to sway votes. But, he says the threat to unity should not be underestimated.

"The fractioning of the church is seen as a theological problem," said Hanson. "God's will is for the church to be one. So, the fractioning of the church would be something that folks would not easily countenance."

At a recent service at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, the Very Rev. Spenser Simrill asked his congregation to see the inclusion of homosexuals in the church as God's will. He says faith is not based in Scripture only, but also in baptism and unity based on respecting the dignity of all people.

"We believe that you read the text in its context, and then ask, 'What is God speaking to us today?'" Simrill said. "And we believe that God is speaking a new word, to honor people who are sexually oriented at an early age towards members of the same sex. And people don't have to agree, but they don't have to leave the table and threaten people that they're going to leave the table."

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Image Mother and daughter disagree

Simrill's comments get to the heart of the debate over homosexuality in the Episcopal Church -- the question of Scriptural interpretation.

Amy Hunt attended the service at St. Mark's with her mother, but left the Episcopal Church years ago. She says the Bible is clear in its condemnation of homosexuality and is not open to Rev. Simrill's interpretation.

"He (Simrill) basically believes that you can set aside what the Scripture says about homosexuality in favor of our more modern, enlightened philosophies of man -- and we can rename what used to be a sin and a perversion as homosexuality as now just an orientation, a sexual orientation," Hunt said. "And that's where we differ."

Conservatives say the loss of tens of thousands of parishioners is at stake, should the convention delegates confirm the election of the openly gay bishop from New Hampshire or approve the inclusion of same sex union blessings into the liturgy.

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Image Supports inclusion

But those in favor of the measures say it's a storm the church can weather.

The Rev. Susan Russell is in town from Pasadena, California. She's the executive director of Claiming the Blessing, a national group advocating the blessing of same sex unions. She says the current debates over homosexuality echo the last time the Episcopal Convention was in Minneapolis. In 1976, the controversy was over the ordination of women.

"The same threats of schism were bandied about as widely then. And the reality is it didn't split the church, it strengthened the church," Russell said. "And I believe it will be the same today."

Observers say they expect New Hampshire's openly gay bishop to be approved.

Should that happen, conservatives say they will begin discussing strategy at the convention, and formulate a response within six months.

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