Thou Shalt Not
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.
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."
A month after Robinson's election, conservative Episcopalians from around the country gathered at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas to effect a "course correction" within the church. At that meeting, which David Roseberry organized, priests and bishops spoke openly about the possibility of schism. Because of that meeting, and the outcry within the global Anglican Communion over Robinson's ordination, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a report calling the American church to repentance. While the report did not condemn Robinson's election, it did say the Episcopal Church should consult the broader Anglican Communion before making major decisions. (The Episcopal Church is a semi-autonomous entity within the Anglican Communion. It recognizes the Archbishop of Canterbury as its worldwide leader, similar to the pope but without as much authority.)
Instead of apologizing, the American bishops went the other way, electing Katharine Jefferts Schori presiding bishop last month at their 2006 General Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Schori had not only supported Robinson's ordination, she had also blessed same-sex unions and on more than one occasion referred to Jesus as Our Mother.
Like a tear in fraying fabric, the rift between liberals and conservatives within the Episcopal Church and the broader Anglican Communion widened at that moment, possibly beyond repair. To many, it seemed a slap in the face, a direct affront to the wishes of the global church. In response, Anglican leaders in Africa, where the church still has the militant zeal of a missionary organization, declared an end to their association with the Episcopal Church, even if it meant forgoing millions of dollars a year in emergency food and other aid.
So far, six American dioceses, including Fort Worth, have rejected Schori as their leader and have asked to be placed under the oversight of an Anglican archbishop outside the United States. It could result in a most unusual outcome: a U.S. diocese reporting to a bishop in Africa.
For Roseberry, Schori's election was also the last straw. On June 24, he announced that his parish, which has the largest Sunday attendance of any Episcopal Church in the nation, would remain part of the Anglican Communion but would sever ties with the Episcopal Church. He has encouraged the bishop of Dallas, who presides over 77 churches and 46,000 members in North Texas, to disassociate from Episcopal Church leadership.
Roseberry is now at the leading edge of a schism that threatens to tear apart one of America's oldest denominations. He believes that the Episcopal Church has lost its way, that the Bible is the authoritative word of God and that homosexuality cannot be reconciled with it. These beliefs--seemingly more suited to a simple evangelical than the studied leader of a mainline church--were chipped away years ago in his denomination, discarded as relics of an earlier, less inclusive, less enlightened time.
But Roseberry, 51, didn't come to his beliefs in seminary or through association with fundamentalist Christians. He says he came to these convictions through personal turmoil, a feeling that he was powerless as a man of God and extensive soul-searching that ended in a fresh examination of the Bible on which his faith is supposedly now based. He refuses to depart from something he believes is indisputably clear in Scripture: Homosexuality is a sin.
But David Roseberry is not a perfect man. He is, in fact, a sinner. He has been divorced, something Jesus expressly forbade. Who is he to judge?
It's a brutally hot July morning in north Plano, where it hasn't rained in weeks. All around Christ Church Episcopal, the grass is dying, turning a crunchy, brittle brown. Cars zip by the church, their drivers hardly noticing the building. Fifteen years ago, it could not be ignored. It stood like a monstrosity of white in an empty corn field. Today, as big as the church is, it is just one more building in a neighborhood already crowded with cookie-cutter brick and stucco homes.
David Roseberry pulls into one of Christ Church's three parking lots. He is late. The minute he gets out of the car, his bald dome is already glistening with sweat. He glances at his watch and then pulls from the trunk of his car a framed picture. He will hang it somewhere in the church.
There is plenty of room for it--more than 140,000 square feet of air-conditioned space on the 15 acres, enough to house a small school. There is, in fact, a school here on the Christ Church campus, as well as a playground, a small chapel of dark red wood and a sanctuary large enough to seat 2,200.
The sanctuary, more than any other place at Christ Church, is Roseberry's pride and joy. At its entrance, beyond the heavy glass doors trimmed in oak, sits a rock, a boulder really, taken from the Sea of Galilee, the site where Christians believe Jesus walked on water. The rock has been outfitted to spout water like a fountain, which it does before Sunday services. Children gather around it and play until their parents call for them to sit down on the cushioned pews, rows of which stretch for 50 yards or so up a slate floor. Those who can't find a seat in the sanctuary can listen from the lobby, where two plasma televisions are mounted on opposite walls. Within the aging Episcopal Church, where congregations rarely crack a couple hundred, it is extremely rare to see a parish with an active congregation this big--let alone an overflow room to accommodate it.
Now in his office, Roseberry sets the framed picture down and sits on a soft leather couch. He spends little time here, he says. Most of his time is spent in the ministry, nurturing his ever-growing congregation.
It has been three weeks since he announced his parish would leave the Episcopal Church, and he feels at peace about it, as if he's been "set free from a boxed canyon." From now on, his church will be called Christ Church in the Anglican Communion. It will continue to recognize Dallas Bishop James Stanton, who heads the Dallas diocese and seems to share Roseberry's conservative theology, as its "apostolic head" but will look outside the United States for leadership beyond that. (Stanton didn't return calls from the Dallas Observer.)
There are some legal issues to be worked out, Roseberry says, but nothing that concerns him. The events of the last three years have given his parish clarity, he says, something all churches need. Churches that are ambiguous about doctrine tend to lose members, he says. "When the decision was made three years ago about the consecration of a gay bishop, it kind of forced everybody to declare what they really believed, and I and my vestry declared a very humble statement, not directed toward gays, but directed toward the elevation of biblical sexuality, and we had people that left, they didn't feel welcomed anymore. Our position hadn't changed, doors weren't closed and nobody checked ID, but there was an implied separation."
There are several members of his congregation, who, as he puts it, "have left the homosexual lifestyle." Everyone makes mistakes, he says. But homosexuality is a mistake that must be corrected, and those who are gay have no place in the leadership of his church. He's not judging people, he says, just telling them what God has said is best for them.
Some admire him for taking a stand. The evangelical radio commentator Albert Mohler, for example, recently called him an example to Christians everywhere. Others despise him. The Episcopal Church has long been known for its unorthodox approach to traditional doctrine and its embrace of liberal progressivism, for as long as Roseberry has been a member. If it has changed, these proponents say, it has changed for the better. Roseberry, on the other hand, has drifted so far to the right, he is hardly recognizable as an Episcopal priest. To put it simply, he has left the church, the church hasn't left him.
And if he and his cronies would just shut the hell up, as one local priest put it, the church could resume its march of progress, with or without him.
Twenty miles south of Christ Church, on the corner of Mockingbird Lane and Inwood Road, stands Saint Thomas the Apostle. It is Highland Park's Episcopal Church. Because of renovations, it is surrounded by a chain-link fence and most of its walls are ripped down to the studs. Until construction is finished, its rector conducts most of his business in a trailer on the north end of the property.
The rector's name is Stephen Waller, and apart from the black shirt and white collar, he is different in almost every way from David Roseberry. It is a wonder they are priests in the same denomination.
He walks through the church, past the construction workers pounding nails, into one of the only rooms that is not under renovation: a small auditorium where chairs are scattered about and the linoleum is scuffed. He sits in a thatched-back rocking chair and briefly closes his eyes, as if a headache is coming on.
He says he knows little of David Roseberry. They are brothers in the Dallas diocese. Other than that, the two have next to nothing in common. For starters, Waller is gay. On most every issue of importance, he and Roseberry have opposing views.
"I'm a person who thinks there's room inside the church for everyone and all their beliefs and we do not have to subscribe to a certain set of beliefs or understandings on issue one, two or three," he says. "I would have no trouble saying to David Roseberry and his cronies, 'This is the Episcopal Church, there's room in it for you and your beliefs.' I don't think he could say the same thing to me, and I think that's too bad."
The Episcopal Church has always been a church of inclusion, Waller says. This very church, Saint Thomas the Apostle, which today has 250 to 300 members, was one of the first white churches in Dallas to allow a black woman to worship with them. It was one of the first churches with a female priest. And it was one of the first churches to open its doors to gays.
"The Episcopal Church has had gay people and straight people in it since Queen Elizabeth and Henry VIII. Some of them have been ordained, some of them have been lay people, some of them have been bishops. Now we have a bishop who happens to be out and partnered. Big deal. It's who you are, it's what you are. You're either straight or gay or some combination thereof, it's not a huge deal. It's just how you are made.
"There are lines in Scripture that seem to say homosexual acts are not so hot, but you know, there are lines of Scripture that say a lot of things are not so hot--divorce, for example. I don't think all truth is contained in Scripture and that the book on truth is closed."
The way he sees it, the Bible teaches love and tolerance. How David Roseberry has lost sight of that is beyond him. "My grasp of truth, I believe, is a bit wider than his is, and I don't know why his has to be so narrow. It's unfortunate. He's got a wonderful thing going, why does he have to fuck it up?"
If only David Roseberry were alone, isolated on an island with his primitive, homophobic theology. But he is not. Of the 111 dioceses in the United States, 10 or 11 are in agreement with Roseberry on issues relating to homosexuality in the church.
"I think what's going on with the conservative right in the Episcopal Church is causing all of us to have to prop up the building, and we wouldn't have to do it if they would just settle down. The general convention made its decision to elect Katharine Jefferts Schori presiding bishop, and nobody's head fell off. Gene Robinson is the only partnered gay bishop that we know of. We've made a decision that we're not likely to elect and consecrate somebody else because we don't want to offend anybody in the deepest, darkest Africa about this. What else do you want? What they want is Gene's head on a platter and Katharine to be a guy," Waller says.
"The truth is the majority of the Episcopal Church wants to do the work God has given us to do and does not want to be distracted by this. Human sexuality is not the end-all and be-all issue for the church. That's my question to all of them--we've lived all these years in the church, worshiping together. We've fought battles over lots of things; why is this the battle that there's no turning back from?"
The whole thing seems to make Waller tired. He rises from his rocking chair, straightens his pants and walks back to his trailer.
To understand David Roseberry, you have to travel back some 20 years. Back then, he was a different man. His theology was liberal and flexible like Waller's. Then, as he put it, "I made some life decisions that really cleaned my clock." He would end up losing his faith. Then one night everything changed.
In March 1984, he got a call from a hospital in Tucson, where he was living at the time. It was his father-in-law. "David," he said, "I need to see you. I think I'm dying." He dressed quickly and rushed to the hospital, arriving at about 2 a.m. He found his father-in-law wheezing for breath, his big barrel chest heaving. The old man took hold of his son-in-law's hand. "How do I know if I'm going to heaven? How do I get right with God?" he asked.
Roseberry didn't know what to say. He'd grown up in the Episcopal Church and had been educated at one of its finest seminaries. But he couldn't answer some of life's simplest questions. So he hemmed and hawed, "doing this sort of reflective thing--you know, 'Tell me more about what you're feeling.'
"Finally, he just waved his hand at me and said, 'Oh, never mind. Just sit there.'
"And I sat there and held his hands, and I knew that I had nothing that I could give him. It was about the lowest spot I had ever been."
Just a few years before, he'd had a miraculous experience in which he believed he'd heard God's voice, calling him to the priesthood. He was taking a test at the University of Arizona, where he studied marine biology and oceanography, when he felt himself being pulled up into the clouds. Looking down he could see the university campus below him, through a haze, and people, who looked as small as ants, walking around its big grass mall. Then he heard two words, "Help me."
In the time since, he had tried to dedicate his life to God. But now here he was, sitting at the bedside of a dying man, tongue-tied. What was worse, he couldn't think of a single life he'd changed in the two years he'd been a priest.
The next night, he and his wife visited with a bishop from Pittsburgh who was in town. Roseberry shared the experience of the night before and the feeling that he was a failure as a priest. The bishop understood. He'd experienced the same feelings. Then he regained his faith through Scripture. He encouraged Roseberry to do the same. "Up until that point, I had seen the Scriptures as this inspiring set of stories, but I had never seen it as inspired. That evening, I got back into the car and told my wife, 'I think my life has forever changed.'"
Over the next year and a half, Roseberry began retooling himself, reading writers that he'd never read and theology that wasn't given to him in seminary. He saw the confidence of other preachers, teachers and theologians outside the Episcopal Church, and he started to change. This led to what he describes now as a belief in the authority of Scripture, a bedrock belief of evangelicals--not mainliners.
Later in 1984 he was sent to Richardson to serve as an assistant pastor. He spent a year and a half there, during which he began to apply his new confidence in Scripture. "The church started to grow in strength and membership because they were hearing something that was fresh. It was like, 'Wow, look what the Bible has to say about this.'"
The bishop of Dallas then sent Roseberry to Plano to start his own parish. He started in a home with 11 people in April 1985. A month later, they moved into a larger home, where they met on Sunday evenings. Roseberry taught the Scriptures and played the guitar. They prayed that more people would come. By August, so many people were coming they had to move again--this time to Carpenter Middle School. The first Sunday there they had 242 people. Three and a half years later, they bought the property where Christ Church now stands.
For Roseberry, everything that has happened goes back to that night in Tucson 22 years ago, sitting at his father-in-law's bedside. "Interestingly enough," he says, "that story has a happy ending. Four years later he called me from his bed. This time he really was dying. The doctors had given him a week to live. He said, 'I want some answers to those questions.'"
Finally, Roseberry had answers. And a week later, his father-in-law was dead.
It was because of what he learned through that experience that he eventually left the Episcopal Church.
For years afterward, he stayed within the church, despite its flaws, hoping he could change it from within. Ultimately he concluded that it had strayed too far from biblical truth.
"For a long period of my life I believed that the church was in denial, and if it could just sort of open its eyes and look around, see its decline, see its deficits, and then look at our church and some of the other churches around the country that are growing, it would sort of wake up and say, 'Oh my gosh, yes, we've forgotten our heritage,'" Roseberry says. "Then I came to the stunning realization that it's not the church that's been in denial, it's me that's been in denial.
"The church wants so much to be the chaplain of American culture that they are willing to bless anything that the American culture decrees as good."
He objects to that easygoing ethos, he says, because it nearly ruined his life. He is referring to his divorce, which is often brought up as ammunition against him. He got married young, at the age of 20, and by 23, he was divorced. It was a bad match, he says, nothing more. He remarried a few years later. (It was his second wife's father-in-law who called Roseberry to his bedside.)
"I understand why people bring it up, I really do. But I'm fully repentant," he says. "That's the great thing about God--there is no sin that forecloses his ability to use anybody.
"God hates divorce, it's in the Bible," he adds. "People often say, 'Well, Jesus talked about divorce but never spoke about homosexuality,' and that really isn't so. He did speak about divorce, but he talked about the forgiveness that he extends to all people. On the other hand, he does speak--in the whole witness of the Scriptures--about the vision God has for marriage.
"What I say to people here at Christ Church is this is not about gays, homosexuals or lesbians or anything like that. It's about what the church can and should do primarily, which is to bless what is God's best for people, and the church should never bless what is not God's best for people.
"Active sin," he adds, "or active promotion of things that God regards as sin should disqualify a person from leadership in the church. And that's what we hold here."
He is worried that his fight isn't over. The Archbishop of Canterbury has yet to make a definitive statement on the issue of gays and lesbians in the clergy. Roseberry says he has already talked with African leaders in the Anglican Communion about the possibility of further division.
What the future holds for the Episcopal Church, and the broader Anglican Communion in general, is anybody's guess. Frederick Smith, a professor of Anglican Studies at Southern Methodist University, says the current schism within the church is more significant than anything in recent memory.
Other Christian churches, especially mainline denominations, are watching the church to see how it handles the issues that divide it. Some see the trouble within the Episcopal Church as the beginning of the end for liberal Christianity. For the last 40 years, liberal Christianity has been hailed as the future of the Christian church, religion writer Charlotte Allen recently wrote in The Los Angeles Times. "Instead, as all but a few die-hards now admit, all the mainline churches and movements within churches that have blurred doctrine and softened moral precepts are demographically declining."
The challenge the Episcopal Church faces, Smith says, is one all churches face--speaking to the culture without being completely co-opted by it.
But the Episcopal Church isn't about to implode, Smith says. What's more likely is fragmentation.
It is entirely possible that the Anglican Communion could split right down the middle on the issue of openly gay men and women in the priesthood, with England, Canada and the United States going one way, while the "global south," as Roseberry puts it, goes another way. "There could come a time when the only place we find gospel solidarity is with our brothers in the global south," he says, referring primarily to Africa and Central and South America.
Under such a scenario, Episcopalians and Anglicans would struggle with the loss of members and dollars, Smith says, but the minority movement may find it hard to identify with one another.
"There's a problem in handling differences through schism," he says. "Regardless of how deeply held your convictions are about the rightness or the error in a particular decision, the fact of the matter is that once parishes separate from dioceses and dioceses separate from the larger church, it then becomes hard to explain to any Episcopal lay person why they should give their loyalty to their church beyond the boundaries of their own convictions and their own needs."
In the meantime, the mundane work of the church must go on: counseling troubled marriages, helping those who've lost their faith, uplifting the poor, the needy and the afflicted.
It's Sunday morning at Christ Church in Plano. As the parishioners file into the large sanctuary, their children gather around the boulder at its entrance, watching the water spout from its center.
For the most part, the parishioners are dressed casually. Men wear polo shirts and tasseled loafers, women wear summer dresses. Some of their children are dressed in shorts; others wear tank tops. They have come, in Roseberry's words, to hear the good word of God on a Sunday morning.
He is at the front of the sanctuary, dressed in a white robe that comes down to his ankles. Beneath it, his khaki pants and simple black dress shoes are plainly visible. As everyone takes their seats, he takes his beside the choir, also dressed in white robes.
Today's sermon is given by the Reverend Greg Methvin, one of the younger members of the Christ Church clergy. He stands behind a lectern. His topic is sex. Sex, God's way.
"The Bible says sex is God's gift," he says. "As long as it is in context of marriage, it is a blessing beyond compare."
His message is simple and straightforward, delivered in plain language buttressed with statistics and stories culled from sources as diverse as the Miami Herald and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He tells the story of a man addicted to pornography and strip clubs who somehow found his way back to God. He ends with a scripture from the Book of John.
All the while, the Reverend Roseberry, who is seated high on the stage behind him, is smiling, his bald dome clean and shiny. He has much to be grateful for. His church is growing. He has a son in the priesthood. He has a daughter about to give birth. But above all he is grateful that he has the truth. What he and his parish call the truth.
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