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Diocese leaders ponder future

Recent Episcopal decisions have left some wondering if the church should split. Local priests and deacons will meet today.

By SHERRI DAY
Published July 8, 2006


Church leaders expect nearly 100 priests and deacons to gather today at the DaySpring Conference Center near Ellenton to discuss the future of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida and its role in the larger Anglican Church.

Bishop John B. Lipscomb, who heads the 33,000-member diocese, called the clergy meeting after the denomination's 75th General Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Lipscomb plans to discuss some of the convention's controversial decisions, including the election of the denomination's first female presiding bishop, its refusal to enact a moratorium on same-sex civil unions and marriages and the consecration of gay bishops.

Local clerics said they expect an amicable, if spirited, discussion at today's gathering.

"These things need to move in a deliberate and thoughtful way and for the sake of the soundness and health of the church," said the Rev. Ed Henley, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Tampa and chairman of the diocese's convention delegation.

Other clerics are steeling themselves for what could become a contentious debate.

"These are not easy times, and I don't think they're for the fainthearted" said the Rev. Sharon L. Lewis, rector at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Osprey and a convention delegate. "I pray that it doesn't come to a split, but it could. Everybody's aware of that."

Lipscomb meets with the diocese's clergy at least twice a year, usually before Lent and in the fall, diocesan officials said. Postconvention debriefings also are common.

"This would be pretty standard, although interest is probably higher because of the subject matter," said diocesan spokesman Jim DeLa.

Closed to the public and reporters, the meeting is not expected to result in any immediate actions regarding the diocese's position in the Episcopal Church. Any decision to leave the church would require a vote by several diocesan governing bodies and ratification by the diocese's convention, which meets in December, DeLa said.

Earlier this week, Lipscomb wrote an open letter to the diocese reaffirming his intention to remain in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

"My commitment remains unchanged," Lipscomb wrote. "I will continue to provide oversight and pastoral care to those clergy and congregations who share this commitment."

Around the country, fallout from the convention has been severe. Six dioceses have petitioned the archbishop of Canterbury for alternative primatial oversight, or rule by a foreign bishop. The dioceses include: Fort Worth, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, Springfield, Ill., and Central Florida, which is based in Orlando.

In a June 29 letter to parishioners and the clergy, Central Florida diocesan officials declared themselves a "diocese in protest" over what they call errors in the church's stance on same-sex civil marriages. They were also critical of the denomination's new presiding bishop, the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, who voted for the consecration of a gay bishop in 2003. Jefferts Schori's gender also complicates matters since many members of the Anglican Communion still do not accept women priests.

In his letter to the Diocese of Southwest Florida, which includes the Tampa Bay area, Lipscomb said he plans to meet with church members soon. Meetings with Episcopalians in Clearwater and St. Petersburg are set for Sept. 28, DeLa said. The bishop plans to hold court in Tampa on Sept. 29.

The Rev. Ian T. Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, sees the debate currently roiling the church as a new iteration of Pentecost.

"It's actually a very exciting time to be an Anglican Christian because the possibilities before us are endless if we don't get caught up in single-identity politics," Douglas said. "I'm tremendously hopeful."

Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 8, 2006, 01:08:23]


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