The resolution from the 1979 Episcopal General Convention in Denver inspired a small wave of headlines, even though it simply restated centuries of doctrine about marriage.
“We reaffirm the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality,” it said. “Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard.”
However, 21 bishops disagreed, publicly stating that gay sexual relationships were “no less a sign to the world of God’s love” as traditional marriages. These bishops — including the Rt. Rev. Edmund Browning, who was chosen as America’s presiding bishop six years later — warned that since “we are answerable before almighty God … we cannot accept these recommendations or implement them in our dioceses.”
It was the start of an ecclesiastical war that has dominated the 70-million-member Anglican Communion for decades.
Then again, this conflict may have started in the 1960s, when Bishop James Pike was censured for his “offensive” and “irresponsible” views questioning the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and other ancient doctrines. And in 1977 a high-profile leader — Bishop Paul Moore of New York — created a firestorm when he ordained a priest who identified herself as a lesbian.
It’s hard to understand this story without some grasp of this complicated timeline. However, news reports regularly chop off several decades, thus making it appear that these doctrinal clashes began with the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first openly gay, non-celibate Episcopal bishop.
“This whole conflict is actually about the Bible and how you interpret it,” said the Rev. George Conger, a correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper. “The polite warfare has been going on for 30 or 40 years. The open warfare truly began in 1997, when the archbishops from Africa and the rest of the Global South met in Jerusalem and decided to let their voices be heard.”
In addition to events in the late 1970s, other crucial dates on this timeline include:
* 1989 — Bishop John Spong of the Diocese of Newark ordains the first homosexual priest who is openly living in a same-sex relationship.
* 1994 — Spong drafts his Koinonia Statement affirming the ordination of gays and lesbians living in faithful, monogamous relationships — with the support of 90 bishops. He also publishes his 12 theses for a liberal Reformation, rejecting belief in the transcendent, personal God of the Bible.
* 1996 — An ecclesiastical court dismisses heresy charges against Bishop Walter Righter, after another controversial ordination. The court says Episcopalians have “no clear doctrine” clearly forbidding the ordination of persons who are sexually active outside of marriage.
* 1998 — In a stunning defeat for the left, bishops at the global Lambeth Conference in Canterbury declare that sex outside of marriage, including gay sex, is “incompatible with scripture” and call for a ban on same-sex-union rites and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals.
* 2000 — Archbishops from Rwanda and Southeast Asia consecrate two American conservatives as missionary bishops, escalating global efforts to form an alternative structure for Anglican traditionalists in North America.
Since the consecration of Robinson, the Episcopal Church has made several attempts to appease the large, overwhelmingly conservative Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and other regions overseas. Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has attempted to calm nerves, while starting the process of creating a doctrinal covenant that he hopes will provide unity on issues of faith and practice.
However, early this week the U.S. House of Bishops voted — by a 99-45 margin — to allow dioceses to proceed with the selection of gays and lesbians for “any ordained ministry.” This effectively overturned a resolution passed at the 2006 General Convention that urged dioceses to refrain from consecrating bishops whose “manner of life” would offend other churches in the Anglican Communion.
“The key question is whether this is a national story or a global story,” said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the conservative Diocese of South Carolina. “The way most people tell this story, America initiates things and then the rest of the world responds. Then America responds and you repeat this process over and over.
“You see, America is at the center of everything. It’s the American church and its concerns that count the most. Meanwhile, Anglicans around the world are trying to tell a different story.”