Amid increasing moves toward schism, a conference of conservative Episcopalians opposing their church hierarchy for approving a homosexual bishop received a letter of encouragement from Pope John Paul II.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold

The unprecedented move by the Catholic pontiff, bypassing the Episcopal Church hierarchy, is regarded by some as a rebuke of Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and 70 other bishops who voted earlier this summer to make Rev. Gene Robinson bishop of New Hampshire.

The letter was read at a national gathering of conservative Episcopalians who voted yesterday, overwhelmingly, to back a declaration repudiating the denomination’s acceptance of homosexual behavior. The statement also called on Anglican leaders worldwide “to intervene in the Episcopal Church” at their emergency meeting next week.

A longtime observer of the church who attended the conference says, “The Episcopal Church as we have known it, is now officially dead.”

The 2,700 bishops, priests and clergy gathered in Plano, Texas, says David Virtue, who runs an online newssite, “are feeling liberated and free, undaunted by threats and future fears. It’s full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes.”

The Episcopal Church is one of several mainline U.S. denominations torn for decades by deep theological divisions between members who uphold traditional teachings and those who do not. Others are the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

“Never have I seen such euphoria,” Virtue said of his Episcopalian colleagues. “The pain of years of betrayal is slowly disappearing. The orthodox mainstream is galvanized as never before, and almost everybody is on board.”

Meeting resonates far and wide

The pope’s letter, sent through Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was read aloud to the conference, sponsored by a church renewal group, the American Anglican Council.

Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote on behalf of the pope, “I hasten to assure you of my heartfelt prayers for all those taking part in this convocation. The significance of your meeting is sensed far beyond Plano, and even in this city from which Saint Augustine of Canterbury was sent to confirm and strengthen the preaching of Christ’s Gospel in England.”

The letter said, “The lives of these saints show us how in the Church of Christ there is a unity in truth and a communion of grace which transcend the borders of any nation. With this in mind, I pray in particular that God’s will may be done by all those who seek that unity in the truth, the gift of Christ himself.”

Virtue commented: “The fact that the Vatican bypassed normal protocols which would have called for a communication to any Episcopalians to be delivered to the presiding bishop, is a message that cannot be missed.”

He said the rebuke is further compounded by the fact Griswold is the Anglican Communion representative in the official Roman Catholic-Anglican dialogue meetings.

The letter’s references to “unity in truth,” is a counter to Griswold’s frequent reference to “pluriform truths,” Virtue said.

The Anglican Communions primates – archbishops and presiding bishops – will gather in England next week, and Griswold is expected to be on the hot seat for supporting Robinson’s election. In 1998, at the church’s once-per-decade Lambeth conference, bishops voted 526 to 70 to accept a resolution stating homosexual practice is “incompatible with Scripture.”

Yesterday’s statement by the conservatives said the church’s General Convention, which met in Minneapolis this summer, has “broken fellowship with the larger body of Christ” by electing an openly homosexual bishop and acknowledging some bishops are allowing priests to bless same-sex unions.

The conservatives want the Anglican leaders to discipline Episcopal bishops who “have departed from biblical faith and order.”

They also are calling for a “realignment of Anglicanism in North America,” allowing conservative congregations to cross diocesan boundaries and be placed under the care of likeminded bishops who uphold the church’s traditional teaching.

At a session Wednesday, church leaders vented their frustrations.

“We are a church under judgment,” said the Rev. Kendall S. Harmon, a church theologian from South Carolina. “The Episcopal Church is now a church where people are officially led away from Christ. This is why we need a realignment.”

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