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The Cost of Courage

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Sad news: A New Hampshire Episcopal church is closing its doors — and it is, in part, due to denominational bigotry following the election of an openly gay man as bishop.

The Advocate has the story:

The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Rochester, N.H., which lost members after the New Hampshire diocese elected Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop, plans to close in the spring. Parishioners met with Robinson on Wednesday to make the closing official. The church has operated for more than 100 years. “Perhaps it was time to rest,” Robinson said. Parishioners made the decision, he added, with “much disappointment and sadness.” The church will remain open until April. Its final service is set for Easter Sunday.

Imagine: A century-old church shuts down because 36 of its former members apparently did not understand or learn Jesus’ message of love. It is a shame, but as the adage says, one does not make an omelet without breaking eggs.

In truth, however, the Robinson issue is not the only reason behind the church’s demise. Kevin Gorham, an 18-year parishioner of the Church of the Redeemer, says church membership and attendance led to dire financial problems that hit the church prior to the 2003 consecration of the gay bishop.

“We’ve been struggling, but we finally got honest about it,” Gorham told New Hampshire’s Union Leader. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Maybe that decision should have been made some time ago. We’ve (added) a few people here and there, but never gotten to a critical mass of more than 30 or 40 regular parishioners.” In the mid-1980s, the church enjoyed a membership of several hundred parishioners.

According to Mike Barwell, communications director for the New Hampshire Episcopal Diocese, “The financial picture was so bleak that there really is no point in trying to carry on.”

Bishop Gene Robinson As sad as the Church of the Redeemer’s closing is, it does not negate the rightness of electing Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. American bishops — targeted by much of the leadership of its parent denomination, the worldwide Anglican Communion — said as much when they came together to release a statement on Robinson’s controversial election, which has created a huge divide between left and right.

Last week, Episcopal bishops issued a statement expressing “sincere regret” for the difficulties the Communion has suffered since Bishop Robinson’s consecration.

“We as the House of Bishops express our sincere regret for the pain, the hurt and the damage caused to our Anglican bonds of affection by certain actions of our church,” the American bishops said in a statement published by the Associated Press.

The statement came after a two-day meeting in Salt Lake City, where bishops discussed how the Episcopal Church can remain unified with the Anglican Communion despite disagreements over the treatment of gay and lesbian members.

Being sorry for the resulting division, however, does not constitute being sorry for electing Robinson. Utah Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish says the statement was meant to express the bishops’ sorrow over the tensions Robinson’s election created within the communion.

Susan Russell, president of the LGBT Episcopal group Integrity, told the PlanetOut Network, “I deeply regret the pain we caused, but I don’t regret us consecrating one of the best bishops in the church. I would draw a parallel for a gay person who comes out and upsets his Aunt Millie. He regrets she’s upset, but he does not regret coming out.”

The story — and the ecumenical divide — does not end here, even for members of the doomed Church of the Redeemer. Members will move to new parishes in other parts of New Hampshire. And the conservative Anglican leadership, reportedly dissatisfied with the US bishops’ statement, again will take up the issue of gay equality when it meets next month in Northern Ireland. Whatever happens, we can be sure that more casualties will occur — and one casualty may be the Anglican Communion, which teeters on the brink of schism. Sad as this fact is, the truth is that sometimes there is a cost to doing the right thing. Kudos to the US bishops for doing what is right rather than what is safe.

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