Will Protestantism Split Over Homosexuality?

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Issues such as homosexual ordination and the acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle equal to heterosexuality are once again causing ripples within America's mainline Protestant churches, and raise the possibility that some churches may be irreparably divided on the issue.

Last year, the Anglican Communion capped an acrimonious debate at the Lambeth Conference, a meeting of the Episcopal bishops, with a resolution that reaffirmed the church's belief that homosexual ordination, same-sex marriage ceremonies, and homosexual sexual activity were "incompatible with Scripture."

The resolution was criticized almost immediately by several prominent bishops from the Episcopalian Church in the United States.

Also, the Rev. Frank Griswold, president of the conference, released a letter reassuring disgruntled laity of his "continuing concern for and commitment to all members of the Episcopal Church who recognize themselves as gay and lesbian." Griswold said he abstained from voting on the resolution because he believed that the Anglican Communion "must explore more fully the whole question of what is compatible and 'incompatible with Scripture.'"

Now, the issue is stirring again with the selection of the Rev. Robert Taylor, an openly gay Anglican minister from South Africa, as dean of the prestigious St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle, Wash. Taylor, who has lived with his same-sex partner for 15 years, will be the first openly gay dean of an Episcopal cathedral when he assumes his duties in November.

The debate over the Anglican Church's position on homosexuality has fueled increasing talk of a formal split in the church.

"A informal divide exists already, and it will probably institutionalize itself in the next year or two," said William Murchison, a nationally-syndicated columnist for the Dallas Morning News and editor of Foundations, a conservative Episcopalian journal.

Murchison told CNSNews.com that while homosexuality has taken center stage among the issues that divide the Episcopal Church, it is only one of a host of controversies.

"This is a debate about the primacy of Scripture, sexual morality, abortion, divorce, the language of worship. . . . What [Episcopalian conservatives] have done, in their own eyes, is taken a stand for revealed, Scriptural religion."

But Rev. Todd Wetzel, head of the conservative group Episcopalians United, says that while the possibility of schism is real, it remains improbable.

"There's still a great deal of cohesiveness within the Espiscopalian Church and the Anglican Communion," Wetzel told CNSNews.com.

"The unity that was shown at Lambeth is shared overwhelmingly by the members of the Anglican Communion, and the Episcopal Church in America is only a small portion of that Communion," Wetzel continued.

"The number of people who have decided to be recalcitrant and act against the opinion of the Council is fairly small."

These same issues, and same possibility of a formal divide, will confront bishops at the national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), held this week in Denver, Colo.

Tuesday, pastors from the Great Commission Network, a group of conservative ELCA clergy and laity, released a letter calling on the bishops to "return to Biblical sanity" and "remember the teaching of Scripture and the historic teaching of the Church" on homosexuality.

"Schism remains a real possibility in the ELCA, and it will come down to the ordination of homosexuals without any qualification as to celibacy or behavior," said Rev. Thomas Parrish, a signatory of the letter and pastor of Vision of Glory Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minn.

"Probably, the schism will come in the sense of many individual churches looking for alternative denominations, and many members leaving the church," Parrish told CNSNews.com.

The ELCA's Division of Outreach recently published guidelines for "Congregational Hospitality to Gay and Lesbian People," which included flying rainbow flags outside of churches. The Great Commission Network has alleged that the Division of Outreach only polled congregations receptive to changing the church's rules on homosexuality.