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On June 11, the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, stood on the steps of Washington National Cathedral and blessed the casket of former President Ronald Reagan as it entered the Gothic sanctuary packed to the brim with dignitaries from all over the world. The next day, he climbed into his green Volkswagen Passat and took a 40-minute drive to officiate at an entirely different ceremony inside a modest white church in Prince George’s County, Md.
The suburban outing was supposed to be a lot less public than the Reagan proceedings. Chane, 60, had tried to keep the ceremony at St. George’s Episcopal Church below the radar screen of Beltway operatives, but a Washington Post story about it a week earlier had eliminated that likelihood. There was a genuine news hook: At St. George’s, Chane was to perform the diocese’s first same-sex “blessing ceremony.” The couple that received Chane’s blessing that day was Michael Hopkins, St. George’s rector, and his partner of 12 years, John Clinton Bradley.
The event went off without a hitch, but also without the blessing of the Anglican hierarchy. “I’m not sure how public it is, but I had a pretty direct letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury [Rowan Williams, the church’s spiritual leader] asking me to cease and desist,” Chane says.
Discouraging words came from stateside as well. The American Anglican Council (AAC), a conservative church-watchdog group based in D.C., opposed the break with tradition. AAC members routinely spar with Chane over matters of gay rights, in letters and sometimes heated meetings. Foreseeing some trouble, Chane had specifically asked the organization not to protest the “union of two men who have served this church tirelessly,” he says.
The AAC stayed neutral on the ceremony. About 10 protesters, however, showed up outside the church anyway, several of them AAC members. “I looked at them and decided to go ahead with this, thinking, If the entire unity and future of the Anglican communion rests on whether I preside at a covenanted blessing of these two men, then we’re in deep trouble.” A proud portrait of Chane and the happy couple hangs in Chane’s office reception area.
But Emily Volz, the vocal head of the AAC’s D.C. chapter, says she has another photograph that more accurately records that day’s events. It’s a picture of her holding up a wooden cross sheathed in black outside St. George’s. To Volz, that was the day Chane betrayed the church. “He pretends to focus on other things, but he does things like the homosexual blessing that the whole worldwide Communion is begging him not to do,” Volz says from her home in Silver Spring. “He is God to gays and lesbians, but I have a visceral sense of [Chane] doing the wrong thing. He’s the bishop, the defender of the faith par excellence, and he’s not acting in that capacity at all.”
On Oct. 18, the church will clarify just what it means to be a “defender of the faith” with respect to homosexual rights. Church leaders will release the report of the Lambeth Commission, which has been working since October 2003 to address the issues of same-sex blessings and the consecration of openly gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Eugene Robinson. Though Chane dismisses the upcoming report as a “well-crafted Anglican document for all groups to effectively spin,” it has the potential to formally divide the 77-million-member ministry and isolate liberal leaders like Chane.
Volz and other Chane detractors, however, aren’t waiting for the Canterbury crowd to touch up their executive summaries and talking points: They’re already attacking the bishop. In keeping with the mien of polite churchgoers, though, their main tactic has been to draft Anglican priests and bishops who oppose same-sex blessings to speak, say Mass, and hold large press conferences on Chane’s theological turf.
Just two weeks ago in the District, the AAC hosted homosexuality’s most outspoken opponent in the Anglican Church, Archbishop Peter Jasper Akinola of Nigeria. Akinola gave a rousing talk about the American church’s attempt “to superimpose your modern culture on Scripture” by ignoring Biblical injunctions against gay sex. Volz pronounced herself “proud” to be on hand for Akinola’s remarks.
The longtime member of Chane’s flock insists she is not a homophobe, but rather someone who is working to keep Chane in line with the Bible. Says Volz: “Bishops are not supposed to lead their flocks over a precipice or invent new ways to be ‘Christian.’ Gays often say they believe they were ‘born that way.’ I would respond that some pedophiles also say they were ‘born that way.’ My own view, for what it’s worth, is that God saw that people were misusing their sexuality and He teaches people to know a better way.”
Over the course of a year, Volz has sent several letters and more than a dozen e-mails reminding Chane of his canonical duties, going into great detail about the evils of sodomy. “Surely you must see that homosexual intimacy is a violation of the body, which was not made for the perverse physical practices normally associated with male homosexual behavior,” she wrote in one before the June blessing. She also confronted him at a recent Episcopal convention, mentioning her displeasure at having Chane’s signature on her two daughters’ high-school diplomas. “It troubles me greatly to feel this way, but I can’t help it. I feel betrayed,” she says.
Volz has one influential ally, the Rev. Earl Fox, a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Virginia and likes to pontificate graphically about the evils of gay sex: “If the evidence shows that God approves and it is a healthy way to live, then I will stand with you. He doesn’t,” Fox says. “There is a list of about six unhealthy behaviors gays engage in—fisting, anal and oral intercourse, rimming, and golden showers, as they call it—which pose great health consequences. And while Bishop Chane is very friendly to talk to, he will not openly discuss the dangers of that behavior to an ignorant American public.”
Chane takes the criticism on a case-by-case basis. Whereas he can only politely respond to Volz’s correspondence, he has some authority over Fox. When Fox applied for a license in February 2003, to minister to D.C. churches “to help them out,” Chane refused to grant it because he openly disagreed with his dogma, Fox says. Fox, who was absent outside of St. George’s but made an appearance in New Hampshire on the day of Robinson’s consecration, now refuses to take Communion with Chane. Chane doesn’t seem too terribly offended.
“I have always believed and tried to live this truth: If you are upfront with people and tell them what you believe, even if you are expecting to get a lot of heat for it, people will be far more respectful for the disagreement,” says Chane.
All of this controversy provides for yet another interesting twist in the career of a man who never wanted election to a bishopric, especially the most political bishopric in the nation. A native of Winchester, Mass., just outside of Boston, Chane “left the church” shortly after high school and never expected to return. But the jazz drummer and race-car driver who has earned the moniker “Bishop With a Bad Boy Streak” eventually found his way into Yale Divinity School after a priest convinced him he could do community activism within the church.
When he first met with the AAC, in spring 2002, Chane told the organization that “there would be times when you’re going to be disappointed in me.” But up until last January, their relationship went along fairly smoothly. Then, on one particularly cold day, while Chane was on his way to visit Condoleezza Rice, Hopkins called with a request: Would Chane officiate at his same-sex blessing?
Without hesitation, Chane committed and put together a commission to devise the rite. The AAC also immediately went into action, soliciting help from international dioceses to stop Chane, but not even the Archbishop of Canterbury could change his mind. Before the event, Chane met with the AAC one last time to ask for a truce and “God bless them, they didn’t protest, aside from a few people,” Chane says.
The church’s conservative lobby, nonetheless, could get a boost from the upcoming Lambeth report. If so, Chane may have a greater crowd waiting for him at the next blessing ceremony. “There is an intimidation factor at work here that they won’t acknowledge at Church House,” Volz declares. “Chane claims that ordaining and blessing gays is a justice issue, at least in part. I seek the truth of God on this matter and do not place my faith in vicissitudes of human social practices. Christianity is not about shades of gray; Christianity is about the sword.” CP