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Episcopal 'civil war' tests old friendships


VERO BEACH, Fla. - Rick Lindsey left a short, but telling phone message last fall for his longtime friend and fellow Episcopal priest, Lorne Coyle.

"Are we OK?" he asked.

Coyle and Lindsey met as seminary students in the 1970s, and they're godfathers to each other's children. But they hadn't spoken in months.

The reason: The Episcopal Church had confirmed the election of its first openly gay bishop. Coyle, an evangelical who interprets Scripture strictly, was against the move, while Lindsey, a social and theological liberal, called it progress.

"This has put the strongest strain on the relationship in 30 years," said Lindsey, who grew up in Baltimore and serves as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church on Hilton Head Island, S.C. "He's my best friend, he's the guy I would trust my life to."

"It's like the eve of the Civil War, when brothers couldn't speak to brothers," said Coyle, rector of Trinity Church on Florida's central coast, a couple of hours drive southeast of Orlando.

The Episcopal Church has long battled over change, from revisions to the Book of Common Prayer to the ordination of women. Nothing in recent decades, though, has roiled the institution and its 2.3 million adherents as much as the issue of homosexuality.

The long debate boiled over last August when the church's General Convention endorsed the election of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Many traditionalists were incensed because Robinson has been living openly in a relationship with another man for 14 years.

Last month, 10 bishops representing as much as 10 percent of the church's membership formed a dissident network for Episcopalians who believe homosexual behavior is sinful.

Some hope the group will eventually replace the Episcopal Church as the U.S. branch of the 70 million-member Anglican Communion, which traces its roots to the Church of England.

The network received a boost last week when 13 Anglican leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America offered their support. A commission overseen by Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and first among equals in the Anglican Communion, is meeting this week in England to try to stave off a split in the global church, which has followers in more than 160 countries.

The conflict has reverberated in parishes across the United States and tested old friendships. In a denomination known for its civility, some on opposite sides of the theological divide no longer speak to one another. Even some who oppose homosexuality are at odds over whether to leave the national church or work for reform from within.

"It's hard for me to think of any issue which has been more divisive than this," said the Rev. J. Robert Wright, historiographer of the Episcopal Church.

One reason the topic of homosexual behavior is so explosive, Wright said, is that Scripture prohibits it. Among the most critical passages in the New Testament is Romans 1:26-27. "Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion," the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to Roman Christians.

By contrast, Wright said, neither the Bible nor the early councils of the church condemned women's ordination to the priesthood, which the church's national convention approved in 1976.

The Rev. Brian Cox serves as rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara. He has spent 14 years working on faith-based conflict resolution in war zones, including the Himalayan region of Kashmir, where Islamic militants are battling the Indian army.

"It's actually easier reconciling Kashmiris than Episcopalians," said Cox, half-joking.

Cox, who opposed Robinson's consecration, said some of his most difficult exchanges have been with fellow traditionalists. Because Cox has worked for reconciliation in the church, he said, some conservatives view him with suspicion.

"One priest actually said to me, 'I don't know where you are at anymore and I don't trust you.' And this was a friend of 15 years," Cox said. "I found there was a real price to be paid for being a reconciler in the church."

He said the topic of homosexuality inflames such passion because it strikes at the core of people's identity. For many homosexuals, he said, full acceptance in the church isn't just a theological issue - it's about who they are as people. To oppose the consecration of a gay bishop is to oppose them personally.

On the other hand, Cox said, traditionalists believe homosexuality violates Scripture, which is at the core of their faith: "For many conservatives, human sexuality was the line in the sand."

Summarizing conservative reasoning, he added, "If the church is embracing something that is unbiblical, how can I embrace something that is so close to my identity as an Episcopalian that violates a sense of what I believe is truth?"

Coyle and Lindsey, now struggling with many of these issues, became friends at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. - an elite institution with a reputation for liberal thought. Coyle said he was drawn to a friendship with Lindsey because of his personal warmth and charisma. In many ways, though, the two were opposites.

Lindsey is the son of a sheet metal worker and a graduate of what was then Towson State College. Coyle's father was a globe-trotting, ABC-TV executive. Coyle spent summers in Latin America and the Middle East and attended Amherst College, one of the nation's most prestigious private colleges. Where Coyle is articulate and urbane, Lindsey describes himself as an "old-shoe kind of guy."

Both say that if they had a midlife crisis, the first person they would turn to is the other. Until recently, they spoke on the phone two to three times a month.

Coyle, a trim, 53-year-old with chiseled features and close-cropped, graying hair, said he developed a strict interpretation of Scripture during a year-long scholarship in Cambridge, where he studied the Bible exclusively. He came to see Scripture, including passages condemning homosexuality, as the word of God.

The issue hits close to home for Coyle: One of his relatives is a lesbian. He said he objects to her conduct, not because he opposes homosexuality, but because God does.

"I pray for her every day," said Coyle, his eyes beginning to glisten. "I still love her, it doesn't matter. The issue is: What does God say?"

Coyle acknowledges that evangelicals have an image problem - some think their opposition to homosexuality is driven by fear and ignorance. "When people say to me, 'You don't understand gay people,' I want to throttle them," Coyle said.

Where Coyle sees God speaking through Scripture, Lindsey sees the Bible as a "living document," subject to interpretation in light of the times.

Consider the Apostle Paul, Lindsey said: "I think he had his own prejudices. When he looks at homosexuality, he looks at the behavior of people who were frivolous or not doing it out of genuine love for each other."

The consecration of Robinson fills Lindsey with pride and fits his vision of the Episcopal Church as open and tolerant. Coyle's parish is in the Diocese of Central Florida, which is affiliated with the dissident, traditionalist network. He wants the organization to reclaim the church from what he sees as a radical leadership - even if it takes decades.

"I'm not leaving the Episcopal Church," Coyle said. "I want to retake the Episcopal Church, pew by pew."

Diversity is a hallmark of the Episcopal Church, but whether there is room in it for such competing agendas is an open question. And how two old friends bridge such profound differences, even they aren't sure.

"This is not going to ruin our friendship," Coyle said to Lindsey in a recent phone conversation. "We already agreed, right?"

Lindsey concurred.

"This ultimately will not destroy us," he said. But it has caused them to examine their core beliefs. And, Lindsey said, it has raised another uncomfortable question: "Do we really have anything in common anymore?"

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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