Arizona Episcopalians opposed to the election in August of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire have formed the Arizona Anglican Council and are aligning with a new national network they believe adheres to biblical standards and Anglican traditions.
Lay members of St. James the Apostle Episcopal parish in Tempe and Christ Church of the Ascension in Paradise Valley have been at the forefront of the organizational effort, which the council’s vice president calls "a safe place for the orthodox in Arizona."
"We want to encourage congregations to consider alignment with the national Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes," said Eric Crawford, a member of St. James. His group would like congregants who disagree with Episcopal Church actions to "know that they have alternatives. We want to encourage people to not give up and not go along (with changes) or bail for another denomination or other churches."
Openly gay Episcopal clergyman V. Gene Robinson was elected 62-45 at the 74th triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church meeting in Minneapolis. Among those voting for Robinson was the Rt. Rev. Robert Shahan, bishop of the Diocese of Arizona, whose 1999 "Epistle on Human Sexuality" called for an end to intolerance toward homosexuality.
The convention’s vote set off a walkout and protests and precipitated a meeting of conservatives in October in Plano, Texas, that attracted 45 bishops and 2,600 of the church’s faithful. Out of the meeting came the new network whose charter was adopted Jan. 20 with representatives of 12 Episcopal dioceses. The charter asserted that Robinson’s election exemplifies the denomination’s departure from "historic faith and order," bringing "immense harm, tearing at the fabric of our communion at its deepest level."
The American Anglican Council, which has nurtured the new network, began in 1996 and boasts about 50 bishops and a mailing list of more than 50,000.
It has raised fears of schism in the Episcopal Church, the 2.4 million-member American body of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The U.S. church also faces estrangement from the 37 other international provinces, especially those in Africa, whose leaders have blasted the U.S. church’s acceptance of a gay bishop.
"We don’t want to come across as divisive," Crawford said of his work with the Arizona council. "We are not trying to destroy what the (Episcopal) Diocese of Arizona is or what they are trying to do."
He said the alternative network is confronting "some deep theological differences that need to be addressed in a straightforward way and are not just papered over." Respect for Scripture and "how we view ourselves as the church" are also key matters, he said.
The issues go well beyond Robinson, said Kathleen Fairman, a new member of the vestry, or church board, of Christ Church of the Ascension. "The issue tends to be reported as if there is one issue, the issue of homosexuality. To me, it is addressing the question: Can we as Christian people do whatever we want to, based on our feelings, which are unreliable? Or is there a set of absolutes, divine, reliable standards that we are obligated to follow. I choose to beli eve that we have standards."
Crawford offered a similar view.
"What it basically gets down to is, did man create God? Or did God create man? That is where I draw the fault line, basically, because most of the arguments used to insert innovation into wellestablished church doctrine tends to deny the authority of Scripture in some sense," he said.
During the past 15 years, Crawford said, the church has drifted from being "redemptive" to a church "more therapeutic." Thus, the "homosexuality issue is just presenting issues of much deeper theological differences" derived partly from the a deeper national cultural split.
While the rectors of their churches have spoken out against the decision regarding Robinson, it has been left to lay people to spread the word about the Arizona Anglican Council. Clergy will only give "some guarded statements — and guarded they should be," said Gene Hutloff of Glendale, who works in lay education in the Episcopal Church. "They are all under obedience to the bishop."
Lay people, he said, have greater freedom than pastors to speak out.
"There is a great amount of freedom of expression in the Anglican community, in the Episcopal Church," Hutloff said. "Right now, there is chill in the air caused by a collective attitude of political correctness where the gay agenda is concerned. It is a small price to pay," he said, to deal with the rejection and people rolling their eyes when he and his group challenge the place of homosexuals in the church.
To those who repeatedly say "the Episcopal Church has had gay bishops in the past — they just were not openly gay," Hutloff said, "there have always been humans. There has always been sin in the human condition, and it would be theologically incorrect to say that even clergy are exempt from sin — or even bishops."
It’s difficult to determine what the Robinson vote has done across Arizona congregations, Hutloff said.
"We are heartbroken that people are leaving the church," he said.
He noted that members are leaving parishes, sometimes without saying why.
Bishop Shahan "doesn’t see things the way we do and is not at all sympathetic to what we have tried to do," Crawford said. "In the past, we have tried to open up dialogue, and there hasn’t been much interest in that.
"We have five congregations that are pretty much on board with us," Crawford said.
Tempe’s St. James and St. Luke’s at the Mountain Episcopal Mission in Phoenix have aligned with the American Anglican Council, while Christ of the Ascension is in the process, he said. They are also working with concerned Episcopalians in congregations in Flagstaff and Tubac.
No one from the bishop’s office at the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona returned calls to respond to the formation of the Arizona Anglican Council or issues raised by the group.
The diocese’s leadership will begin to change April 24, when the Rev. Canon Kirk Stevan Smith, 52, is consecrated as a bishop adjutor. The six-month transition will conclude with Shahan’s retirement in October.