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NYTimes Magazine: Bishop Lee’s Choice

The New York Times Magazine offers an interesting look at the changing thought patterns in the Episcopal Church regarding homosexuality, racism, women in the priesthood, and many other topics.

Throughout his nearly 19 years as the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Peter James Lee has been an unwavering centrist and consensus builder. His diocese, the largest in the Episcopal Church, is diverse, with giant urban churches and tiny rural ones, liberal mainline congregations and conservative evangelical ones, and Lee has managed to hold them all together by astutely finding the midpoint on any controversial issue and luring both sides toward it. At the Episcopal Church's general convention last summer in Minneapolis, Lee oversaw publication of a daily newsletter that offered a middle-of-the-road perspective on the many contentious issues facing the church. He called it Center Aisle.

The most contentious of the issues, of course, was the nomination of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest who had been living with another man for 14 years, to be the bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. For the 107 bishops in attendance, their vote on his confirmation would be the most scrutinized of their careers. And, based on Peter Lee's record, there seemed little doubt about where he would come down. On matters of sexuality, his diocese was largely traditional, and Lee, throughout his reign, had resolutely refused to bless same-sex unions or to ordain noncelibate gay or lesbian priests. Under his leadership, in fact, the diocese has adopted an explicit statement that ''the normative context for sexual intimacy is lifelong, heterosexual, monogamous marriage.''

In the weeks leading up to the vote, though, Lee reflected back on the nearly 200 bishops whose candidacies he voted on over the years. Some were divorced and remarried. Others held theological views that were sharply at odds with his own. Some had refused to ordain women, a practice Lee endorsed. Yet he had voted for them all. Lee did not know Gene Robinson personally, but the Episcopalians of New Hampshire clearly felt he would make a good bishop. And so, on Aug. 3, the day before the vote, Lee sent a letter to his diocese indicating his intention to confirm. ''I am convinced of the need to respect the Diocese of New Hampshire's decision, in spite of my personal reservations and our current diocesan policy, which would not permit Canon Robinson to be ordained in Virginia,'' he wrote. It was his prayer, he added, that the people of Virginia would ''unite in the mission we share, even as we acknowledge respectfully differences among us.''

The next day, Lee became one of 62 bishops to vote to confirm Robinson (with 45 against). However, his hope that the people of Virginia would unite behind him proved in vain. His vote set off a furor of an intensity and duration that stunned Lee. Since the end of the general convention in August, there have been forums and workshops on the issue of the gay bishop, and also protests. Rectors (as church heads are known) have been overwhelmed by phone calls from angry and confused parishioners. Hundreds have left their churches, and thousands more have insisted that none of their church contributions be passed on to the diocese. Already the diocese has lost more than $250,000 in anticipated revenues, forcing Bishop Lee to impose a hiring freeze.

Lee himself has received more than 1,000 letters and e-mail messages, and while some have been supportive, most have been critical and some downright abusive. ''You have betrayed the calling of Christ to be faithful,'' wrote a parishioner. ''I have lost total respect for you and am ashamed to be a part of this denomination.''
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