Thou Shalt Not

How Plano pastor David Roseberry became the leading edge of a schism in the Episcopal Church over gays in the ministry

The votes have been cast. It's over. For good or bad, Gene Robinson, son of a Kentucky tenant farmer, has made history--and captured the world's attention. The Episcopal Church has its first openly gay bishop.

It is August 5, 2003, and Robinson is to appear before the House of Deputies, an elected body of more than 800 clergy and lay Episcopalians from across the United States. They are gathered in the cavernous exhibit hall of the Minneapolis Convention Center, site of the 2003 General Convention, seated behind row after row of long tables draped in white cloth. Some of the biggest media outlets in the world are here: CNN, ABC, The New York Times. All told, there must be 100 reporters in the exhibit hall. Some are about to go live.

America's church, the church that can claim more U.S. presidents than any other, has just blessed homosexuality as holy. For gay rights activists, it is a huge step toward equality. For conservatives, it is one more sign that America is headed for the Apocalypse.

Reverend David Roseberry
Reverend David Roseberry
Gene Robinson was the first openly gay man elected as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Gene Robinson was the first openly gay man elected as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.

At one of the tables sits the Reverend David Roseberry of Plano. He wears the plain black shirt and stiff white collar of a simple priest. He is indistinguishable from the others around him, his voice lost in the din. But this will soon change. His black, rubber-soled shoes are planted squarely on the concrete floor, as if he might bolt at any minute. And he just might. Like others at his table, conservatives from the suburban prairieland surrounding Dallas, he is not pleased with Robinson's election. In fact, he plans to hand in his credentials today. He will remain a part of the Episcopal Church, he will continue to shepherd his booming parish in Plano, but he will no longer serve on the House of Deputies. He cannot break bread with a body that has elected a gay man as bishop. To Roseberry, a lifelong Episcopalian, Robinson is "a living contradiction to the teaching of the Apostles."

After Robinson is introduced, a group of 30 or so priests marches to the stage, where one reads a statement of protest. The Reverend Roseberry is among them. His face is grim, his eyes weary. He doesn't say a word. His presence is a symbol of solidarity. Once they finish, the president of the House of Deputies asks the chaplain to offer a prayer befitting the momentous occasion. Once the prayer is over and the applause for Robinson has died down, the new bishop of New Hampshire will address the crowd.

By that time, Roseberry will be long gone. He had started planning his exit the day before, when Robinson was elected. He has a resignation letter in his vest pocket and his briefcase is waiting outside in the hall. He left it there because he doesn't want to draw attention to himself. His plan is to wait for the prayer to begin and slip out. Without his briefcase it will appear as if he's just heading to the restroom.

As the prayer begins, he quietly hands his letter of resignation to the head of their table. "Paul, this is it for me," he says softly. "I'm going to leave. And I don't want to draw any attention to me or the diocese so I'm just going to sneak out."

He is nearing the door, his wife beside him, when the prayer ends. Suddenly, without warning, he hears a familiar voice coming from the table he just left. "Point of personal privilege!" It's the rector of Saint Michael and All Angels in Dallas. "It's come to my attention that David Roseberry's just resigned his deputation."

A murmur goes through the crowd.

Suddenly, four or five television cameras are in Roseberry's face. Reporters from CNN, FOX and ABC ask him what he's doing. "Well, I need to go and officially resign."

They follow him.

He walks down a crowded corridor where it seems like hundreds are milling about, wondering what's going on. At the registration booth, cameras still in tow, he hands in his badge. "I am resigning my post as deputy," he says to the woman behind the counter. "And I was told I had to register as something, that I couldn't just walk around the convention without some kind of badge. What are my options?"

She looks at him, tells him dryly that he can register as a visitor and makes him a new name tag. As he signs it, his hands are shaking.

In front of the television cameras he explains why he can no longer be part of the House of Deputies. And in that moment, this bald, unassuming man becomes the unlikely face of a movement.

The Episcopal Church, one of the most historically significant churches in America, is on the verge of implosion. It has endured schism before but nothing like what it faces today. Its "civil war over homosexuality," as The New York Times put it, threatens not only to divide its 2.3 million members but also to separate it from the 77 million-strong global Anglican Communion.

Once viewed as the Republican Party at prayer, over the past 30 to 40 years the Episcopal Church has morphed into something else altogether, losing much of its membership along the way. The turning point was 1976, when the church began ordaining women to the priesthood, and in the three years since Robinson's election, it has lost the numerical equivalent of a congregation a day. With Sunday attendance hovering around 800,000, the church has come to represent less than 3 percent of Anglicans worldwide and a little more than 1 percent of American Christians, making it, as the writer Allen Guelzo recently put it, "statistically negligible on the horizons of both American Christianity and the Anglican Communion."

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