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Rift over gay clergy cools down for now

BY JAMES H. BURNETT III, jburnett@miamiherald.com

Four years after a feud erupted in the Episcopal Church over the appointment of a gay bishop and the formal blessing of same-sex unions, a surprising thing happened at the church's House of Bishops assembly in New Orleans last week: The dispute appeared to cool -- for now.

''I say it was nothing short of a small miracle,'' says Bishop Leo Frade, of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.

But that doesn't mean vocal opinions don't remain on both sides of the issue.

Earlier this year, the leaders of the Anglican Communion, the worldwide overseer of Episcopal churches, demanded its U.S. church not install any more gay bishops, stop blessing same-sex unions and try to install more conservative bishops to accommodate more traditional church members.

Liberal clergy opposed the demands. Conservative clergy sided with the Anglican Communion and its leader, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury.

In the end, both sides issued a statement to the Communion and the Anglican Church's 38 primates -- archbishops or regional presiding bishops -- agreeing in spirit to the demands of no more gay bishops and same-sex unions for now, but gently rejecting Communion input on future U.S. nominations.

The concessions won't jeopardize the status of V. Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire whose 2003 election started the controversy. Nor does it invalidate blessings previously given at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

''I can't tell you how, but we all came together on this one,'' says Frade, who attended the New Orleans assembly. In the end, the vast majority of the bishops . . . voted for the statement that we presented to the church's 38 primates.''

Still, not all South Florida Episcopal clergy agree that the statement and concessions healed the rift or that it eliminates the possibility of a future church split.

''It is wonderful news that the Episcopal Church in the United States remains intact. But to me it was sort of like putting a Band-Aid on the sun,'' says Father Orlando Addison, rector of St. James in the Hills Episcopal Church in Hollywood.

``It just wasn't enough. The truth is the bishops and priests on either side of this issue are no closer to agreeing. This statement simply puts things off till the next general assembly of the church in 2009.

``Hopefully then we can come to a resolution. But I fear we won't, and the church will split.''

That fear received a small boost Friday when Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, unsatisfied with the New Orleans compromise, announced he wanted to form a splinter church.

The problem, Addison says, is that both sides disagree on how literally to take the Bible, which some conservative clergy say condemns homosexuality.

''On a personal level, I believe all people should have the rights to the same social and financial benefits,'' Addison says. ``But to the issue of homosexuality, I'm sorry. But those rights should not alter how the church is run.''

Father Carlos Miranda, a former Episcopalian who is now rector of the breakaway King of Glory Anglican Church in Doral -- which aligned itself with the conservative Anglican Missions in the Americas -- has been watching the feud closely. He hopes that when the Episcopal general assembly meets in two years, conservative bishops will prevail.

''This is not a complicated issue,'' Miranda says. ``It comes down to the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture. No, I am technically not an Episcopalian at this point. But I am a part of the Anglican Church. So this concerns me.''

Episcopal clergy like Father Sharrod Mallow, rector of All Saints Church in downtown Fort Lauderdale, argue that talk of an eventual church split is hype.

''The church is not going to split, not now, not at the next assembly,'' Mallow says. ``I'm amazed at what I hear -- especially in the media -- about our impending destruction. It's just not true.''

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