In an action that is certain to provoke new debate over homosexuality and the clergy, the Episcopal bishop of Washington ordained a woman openly living in a lesbian relationship to the priesthood Wednesday. The ordination comes as several major Christian denominations are struggling with questions about homosexuality and sexual relations outside marriage.
Next month, in fact, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is to reconsider a 1979 resolution against ordaining sexually active homosexuals.
And today, the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opens committee hearings on a special church report written by a church-appointed commission that rejects traditional strictures against sex outside of marriage for all believers.
A wave of opposition to the report has mounted in the 2.9-million-member church. The report recommends acceptance of sex between homosexuals and between unmarried heterosexuals if it is "responsible," "mutual" and "caring."
The ordination of the woman, Elizabeth Carl, clearly surprised and upset the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Edmond Browning. Carl was ordained at the Church of the Epiphany, where she is an assistant minister.
In a statement released by his office in New York City, the presiding bishop noted that the church had been planning to take up the issue of ordaining homosexuals, but that "events such as the ordination in the diocese of Washington can trigger the sort of attention that may make positive dialogue more difficult and polarize the church."
He added: "When I was first informed by the bishop of Washington on Tuesday, June 4, of the ordination scheduled for June 5, I asked that he reconsider for the good of the whole church and the impending discussion at General Convention."
The Washington bishop, Ronald Haines, said that Carl "has for a number of years openly lived in a loving and intimate relationship with another woman" with whom she has made "a lifelong and monogamous commitment."
The bishop acknowledged that "ordination of one whose lifestyle involves sexual relations outside of marriage troubles me greatly." He said some "scriptural passages and historical teachings of the church appear to be at odds with ordination of homosexuals" and "cannot easily be answered or put aside."
But when a candidate has persistently displayed "strength, leadership, spirituality, intellect, moral understanding and commitment to Christ," the bishop said, "reservation regarding the candidate's sexuality and lifestyle" should not "by itself be an absolute bar to ordination."