Local priests ask support for national decision to elect gay bishop

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2003

Priests at the two Episcopal churches in Juneau are asking their congregations to support the Episcopal Church U.S.A.'s decision to elect the Rev. Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire.

"We need each other, and if people decide to separate themselves, all they're going to hurt ultimately ... they're going to hurt themselves," said the Rev. Ralph F. Wagner, interim priest at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Juneau.

The decision of the delegates to the Episcopal church's national convention in Minneapolis last week caused some church members across the country to leave the church or threaten to leave it.

But the Alaska delegation to the convention, which consisted of four clergy and four lay members led by Bishop Mark MacDonald, supported Robinson's approval. St. Brendan's Episcopal Church and the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Juneau support that decision.

"I think in general the people at St. Brendan's would honor the polity (government) of our church," said the Rev. George A. Walter of St. Brendan's in the Mendenhall Valley. "If the diocese of New Hampshire wants to elect this individual, our church polity allows that."

Neither Wagner nor Walter said they had heard from church members with serious grievances about the decision.

"You don't go to church to get upset or to be self-righteous because ... we need help - that's why we go to church, because we need each other," Wagner said. "There are so many things to get upset about - why get into it?"

The Rev. Kathleen Wakefield, an Episcopal priest who is a member of Holy Trinity, said she has yet to hear anything negative about the decision.

"The only comments I've heard so far have been positive," Wakefield said.

Wagner plans to discuss the issue in his sermon today and to encourage his congregation to remain loyal to the church.

Walter, who is celebrating a baptism today, said he probably won't discuss the issue.

"Every diocese has an annual diocesan convention, so this October when Alaska Episcopalians meet, some of these things will be discussed, I'm sure." Walter said.

Alaska Bishop MacDonald wrote a letter to Episcopalians in the state explaining his reasons for approving Robinson in a process that left him "deeply troubled."

"I am not happy that we have been forced into a situation that provided no avenue for a decision that does not divide the church," MacDonald wrote. "This is a great tragedy."

MacDonald wrote that he always has held to the conviction that an individual diocese has the right to choose its leadership. The approval process allows the convention to object only if deliberate deceit or fraud is found on the part of the nominee.

"My vote for consent was an endorsement of diocesan autonomy and nothing more, as I believe the issues raised by Gene Robinson's election must be decided in other ways," MacDonald wrote. He was unavailable for further comment.

Another letter, written by the four clergy and four lay members who comprised the Alaska delegation to the convention, also was sent to Alaska's Episcopalians. None of the Alaska deputation is from Juneau, Walter said.

The deputation's letter echoed MacDonald's sentiments about diocesan autonomy in choosing leadership, but also expanded upon Robinson's integrity as a church leader.

"He has spent his life putting himself out in the service and support of others," the deputation wrote. "His committed monogamous, faithful, caring and life-giving relationship is indeed an example of how the church expects all those in relationships in and outside marriage to behave."

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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