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Steering a path around crisis

A priest tries to keep an Episcopal parish on track amid national uproar.

By SHERRI DAY
Published June 10, 2007


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SARASOTA - The Rev. Fredrick A. Robinson works mightily to hold his parish together.

At the Church of the Redeemer, Robinson is both counselor and enforcer, friend and leader as he steers his flock through one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the Episcopal Church.

For years, Robinson has seen the impending train wreck, a potentially devastating collision of cultural progressives and theological conservatives. The consecration of an openly gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex unions sit at the root of the controversy.

Now the theologically conservative Anglican Communion, the umbrella group for Anglicans around the world, has put forth an ultimatum. The Episcopals have until September to agree to stop ordaining gay bishops and not bless same-sex unions or face unspecified consequences.

Many Episcopalians, including most parishioners at Redeemer, think that the Episcopal Church USA is going against biblical teachings on human sexuality.

"We certainly are not in synch with the national church, " said Robinson, 55. "I think there's a great deal of shock that the church could do this."

Reaction among parishioners at the conservative Redeemer church has varied. Some have left. Others struggle over whether national leaders have erred, and many have redirected their money from the national church to a foreign diocese.

Pat Mudgett, 56, is one of them.

"I just felt loud and clear in my own mind that the Lord does not condone what was happening in the national church, and I shouldn't be supporting that, " said Mudgett, explaining why she redirects her donations.

Robinson believes his charge is to keep his parish together as congregations around the country pull out of the Episcopal Church in protest. Forty-five have done so thus far, and last month, a group of Anglicans based in Nigeria consecrated a Virginia priest to oversee a North American group of Episcopal defectors and other Anglicans not associated with the Episcopal Church.

Scholars call the situation unprecedented in the Episcopal Church and say it poses a greater potential for fissure than previous controversies, such as the ordination of women in the 1970s or changes to the prayer book.

"This thing is just an unholy mess, " said David Hein, chair of the religion and philosophy department at Hood College in Frederick, Md. "This is the kind of thing that drives people into secularism."

At Redeemer, Robinson tries to insulate his flock from the larger debate. Like leaders in the 33, 000-member Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, he has no plans to leave the Episcopal Church. Such a move could prove costly, as legal battles over property rights would certainly break out between the national church and the parish.

With 775 attendees on a typical Sunday, Redeemer is the diocese's largest parish. Its members, a diverse group of singles, retirees, empty nesters, young families, gay and straight, exemplify the struggle that grips the church.

Robinson works hard to keep their focus off the controversy, but he doesn't ignore it either. He has preached about it, held forums and invited the head diocesan bishop, the Rev. John B. Lipscomb, to talk to parishioners.

Robinson also backed the leaders of Redeemer last year when they wrote the diocese asking it to pursue national leadership by a more conservative presiding bishop. Three other churches made the same request, but the diocese declined to act.

Still, Robinson admits his efforts sometimes fall short. So far, he's lost several families and some homosexual members.

Kevin Beachy, 48, left Redeemer about two years ago for the Lutheran Church. He and his wife did not want their children suspended in a prolonged identity crisis.

"We just felt that the church had abandoned a lot of its traditional teachings on morality and sort of put the Bible on the back burner, " said Beachy, a finance manager.

Robinson made compromises to keep others. With the diocese's blessing, the priest allows parishioners to redirect funds they would have sent to the national church - a small portion of their donation - to the Diocese of the Dominican Republic. Since 2004, when the diocese began tracking the redirected money, about $31, 000 a year goes to the diocese for scholarships and to help build schools and shelters, said Robert Stevens, director of the Dominican Development Group near Ellenton.

Robinson estimates that 60 percent of Redeemer's parishioners redirect their donations to the Dominican Republic.

Like many at Redeemer who disagree with the Episcopal Church but love their local parish, Mudgett has no plans to leave as long as Robinson sticks to the same doctrine.

"I read things about the Episcopal Church, and I don't feel like we're a part of that, " said Mudgett, a Realtor and 27-year Redeemer member.

Melliss Swenson wants to remain an Episcopalian, but left Redeemer on June 1.

"I've never been in such a conservative church, " said Swenson, 67, an actor who says she has many gay friends. "I think we should be less judgmental and more all encompassing."

Other parishioners, like Michael Hartenstine, find comfort in the middle of the debate.

"Clearly the church has to stand for something, and for those who embrace the traditionalist view, it has to stand for at least moral conduct, " said Hartenstine, a 54 year-old lawyer. "But the disagreement is, what's moral? I just don't know, and frankly none of us know. These are matters of faith."

Robinson intends to continue to lead his flock as members of the Episcopal Church regardless of how the debate plays out. Even though life at Redeemer hums along with few reverberations from the controversy, Robinson knows he faces a significant challenge.

"The elephant is always in the living room, " he said. "People are always wondering what's going to be done about this, and they're not very happy about it. But they are loyal to Redeemer because it is such a good place."

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

Fast Facts:

The debate

In 2003, the Episcopal Church consecrated the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who is in an openly gay relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire. It set off a maelstrom about the ordination of noncelibate gay priests and the blessing of same-sex unions. Last summer, the election of the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as presiding bishop further splintered relations. Some opposed her because she is a woman, others because she backs Robinson.

The fallout

Episcopal Church USA leaders say about one half of 1 percent of its 2.3-million members in the United States and 10 overseas dioceses, or about 11, 500 people, have left amid the controversy. This continues a decades-long slide in membership.

The showdown

The Anglican Communion set a Sept. 30 deadline for the Episcopal Church to agree to a moratorium on consecrating gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions. It is unclear what the church will do, but the debate will likely continue for many years, church leaders say. "We're just going to keep going, " said the Rev. Dabney T. Smith, bishop coadjutor for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. "Obviously if this stuff was simple, we would have figured it out 30 years ago."

 

[Last modified June 10, 2007, 01:11:51]


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