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Scholars weigh in on schism possibility

With the world's Anglican leaders expressing disapproval Thursday of the election of an openly gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire, professors at the Divinity School said a schism of the Church--still a possibility--could have profound social consequences.

The Episcopal Church U.S.A. is one of many provinces in the Anglican Communion, the loosely organized international association that connects the denomination. When the Rev. Canon Eugene Robinson was elected as bishop this summer, some conservatives in the United States pressed the Anglican Communion to divide the Episcopal Church U.S.A. into two separate provinces, or, going further, to exclude the liberal members of the Church from the Anglican Communion altogether.

A statement released from the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion specified no action against U.S. Episcopals but said "the future of the Communion itself is in jeopardy." While professors said it remained unclear what would become of the Church, a schism or realignment remains a possibility.

"It's certainly possible that the Anglican Communion... will break apart," said Geoffrey Wainwright, Robert Earl Cushman professor of Christian theology. "Within the U.S., it's possible that there will be two virtually distinct bodies, each claiming to be the truer Anglican [group]." Most Anglicans outside the United States espouse the more conservative perspective.

Should the Episcopal Church U.S.A. split in two, it could possibly be followed in division by other Protestant denominations, especially Methodists and Presbyterians, said Jackson Carroll, Williams professor emeritus for religion and society. These and other sects are all grappling with the issue of homosexuality in the ministry, and schisms are not out of the question for these groups either.

Wainwright said a major reorganization of Protestant denominations could conceivably take place, with pro-homosexuality groups seceding or being expelled from their original Churches and merging with offshoots from other denominations. This, he said, could be the most significant reorganization in Christianity since the Reformation.

Intrasectoral divisions have occurred throughout history, although the Episcopal Church has been one of the more enduring of Protestant denominations. During the period around the U.S. Civil War, some churches were split on the issue of race and slavery.

"There are certainly advantages [to a schism] from two different perspectives," said Holly Taylor Coolman, a fourth-year divinity student and an Episcopalian who has been following events closely. "For those who are in favor of gay ordination, to be able to go ahead without hesitation is like stepping into the light of a new day. For those people who feel like gay ordination is an affront to the basic commitments to the Christian faith, this is a way to guard and preserve the truth of the Gospel and take that Gospel forward. But, I, myself, see a great disadvantage if each of these groups comes to believe that they have nothing to learn from the other."

Four central issues are at play in the debate over allowing homosexual bishops, Wainwright said: a supposed natural order favoring heterosexuality, the authority of Scriptures in discrediting homosexuality, Christian tradition and whether one part of a Church or Communion can act separately of the larger body.

Most all professors agreed that the Biblical stance on homosexuality is consistently negative.

But Carroll said homosexuality is seldom discussed in the Bible, and when it is--such as in the Book of Leviticus--it is amongst laws many Christians consider antiquated, such as dietary restrictions.

"Simply to say something is Biblical doesn't tell you much of anything," said associate professor of theology Mary McClintock Fulkerson. "I can tell you it's Biblical to bash babies against the rocks. I can tell you it's Biblical to support slavery. Christians have other criteria that they bring to bear against these decisions."

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