ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Episcopal Church is betting its future on the hope that there are more young people out there like Will Hay.
Mr. Hay, 17, was one of the youngest voting delegates at the church’s 10-day triennial convention, which ended Friday. He has stuck with his church, even when the priest and most of the parishioners in his conservative San Diego parish quit the Episcopal Church two years ago in protest of its liberal moves, particularly the approval in 2003 of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson. Mr. Hay has helped rebuild his parish, which was left with 48 people and has since drawn nearly 100 new members.
Mr. Hay is no left-wing ideologue, and in fact fears that some of the convention’s landmark decisions last week may alienate even more conservatives. The church’s convention voted not to stand in the way if another gay bishop were elected and to allow for the blessing of same-sex couples.
But Mr. Hay was not troubled by those things. And he believes that the church can grow by emphasizing “inclusivity,” the favorite buzzword of Episcopalians.
“I’m sure we will attract people who are saying maybe we are doing it right,” Mr. Hay said as he came off the convention floor for lunch one day with his mother. “For me it seems right because I was raised in a household where we were always taught to accept everyone, regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual identity.”
Whether Episcopalians really can regenerate a church based on youth and “inclusivity” remains to be seen.
So far, they have paid a price for their actions. Four bishops, the majority of their dioceses and numerous parishes around the country jumped ship in the last few years to form a new, theologically conservative entity called the Anglican Church in North America. That group will not consecrate women, not to mention gay men and lesbians, as bishops. It has about 100,000 members, while the Episcopal Church has about two million.
But a church study shows that membership declined about 6 percent from 2003 to 2007.
The Episcopal Church also saw its contributions decline, though church experts say it is hard to know how much of that drop is attributable to the economic downturn. The convention voted last week to cut the budget by $23 million over three years and eliminate about 30 out of 180 staff positions at church headquarters in New York and other locations.
To theological conservatives, these are signs of a church that will ultimately collapse because it has sold its soul to secular political causes. Two conservative bishops who have remained in the Episcopal Church appeared at a news briefing last week organized by a conservative Anglican group and mourned the direction their church has taken.
“I am a lifelong Episcopalian, a lifelong Anglican,” said Bishop William Love of Albany, who appeared on the verge of tears. “It is breaking my heart to see the church destroy itself.
“Rather than being a blessing for the church, I believe ultimately it will be a curse on the church. Rather than bringing more people into the church, I believe it will drive more people away.”
Bishop Peter Beckwith of Springfield, Ill., said, “It’s a disaster.”
But when asked whether they would lead their dioceses out of the church, both bishops said probably not. Part of the reason was that they would be likely to face legal wrangling over properties, and part is simply their faithfulness to the church.
“I have not sensed that this is the direction the Lord is calling us to,” Bishop Love said. “It all depends on what you focus on. My intent is to keep us focused on Jesus Christ and not on the storm.”
It may be that all the motivated conservative bishops and parishes that considered homosexuality the deal breaker have already left, or have just grown tired of fighting.
Toward the end of the convention last week, 27 of the church’s active and retired bishops signed a minority report putting their objections on record. Above all, they are concerned that the Episcopal Church has jeopardized its place in the Anglican Communion, the international network of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England. But the conservative bishops concluded in their minority report that they had not been made to feel like they did not belong, and signaled that they, too, did not intend to leave.
“We are grateful for those who have reached out to the minority, affirming our place in the church,” they wrote.
Mr. Hay, the 17-year-old convention deputy, said he knew that other conservative Episcopal parishes in San Diego were “on the fence,” and he hoped they would not depart.
“What it’s about is keeping people at the table,” he said, “pushing more discussion.”
Source: New York Times