Gays in Church and State

With God, say the faithful, all things are possible. Even in the church. The cautious, usually genial and conflict-averse Episcopalian faith made ecclesiastical history last week by elevating an openly gay priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, to be the Bishop of New Hampshire. Convening in Minneapolis, the church leaders also voted to permit local churches to bless same-sex unions (which many already do). Those blessings are symbolic, and affect only the 2.3 million Episcopalians in the United States. But the moves come just after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay privacy rights and amid the Massachusetts Supreme Court's deliberation of a case that could legalize gay marriage there. For both church and state, a cultural showdown is underway.

The Episcopal Church, the old joke went, was the Republican Party at prayer, but not anymore. Conservatives in Congress are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw gay marriage. While saying that homosexuals should be treated respectfully, President George W. Bush has declared that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman.

The Episcopal drama's larger political significance lies in the spotlight it cast on this complex national debate. In an age when "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" are mainstream TV hits, gay issues are beginning to seem less extreme, and the Robinson election is a small but telling case study of the tension between tolerance and tradition.

Robinson, a divorced 56-year-old father of two grown daughters, is a longtime priest in New Hampshire, and his election by the diocese in June was not seen as an intentionally provocative political statement. "We can get through this if we keep coming to the altar rail," Robinson said at the time, deftly appealing to the Anglican sense that the sacraments, not the personalities of priests, lie at the center of the faith. His longtime partner, Mark Andrew, was by his side in Minneapolis, as was one of Robinson's daughters, Ella, 21. His former wife, Isabella McDaniel, issued a statement saying that Robinson "will be a truly great bishop." Then came a splash of scandal: two days before the vote on Robinson, an Episcopalian in Vermont sent an e-mail to bishops saying Robinson had improperly touched him. Another bishop said Robinson had founded a youth group that had Web links to a porn site. A church investigation soon found both charges to be baseless.

Robinson said he didn't think his elevation would make much difference to many of the nation's Episcopalians: "When they go to church on Sunday, it's going to look pretty much like last Sunday."

A hopeful, but perhaps naive, sentiment. While many heterosexuals are comfortable with homosexuals they know, many resist rethinking institutions like the ministry or marriage to sanction gay ordination or same-sex unions. In the Episcopal ranks, Robinson's ratification will prompt a schism in the church. The Archbishop of Canterbury is convening a summit, and American conservatives will meet in October in Plano, Texas, to strategize about responses to what they see as a religious travesty.

Before the vote in Minneapolis, a bishop from the South privately observed: "Voting against a principle--in this case, gay rights--is easier than voting against an individual person." From churches to courts to Con- gress, casting votes that decide who belongs and who doesn't has never been simple--and as the debates grow heated, a moment of prayer amid the storm wouldn't hurt.