Religion Today

Washington, USA - Kendall Harmon has to monitor his blog these days, so he can delete insults and offensive language from the comments section.

His topic: the Episcopal Church.

As a critical church meeting nears over homosexuality, the debate online and in public comments has grown so intense that one publication has dubbed it "blood sport."

"I think people are dreading possible outcomes and when you're dealing with the unknown, fear kicks in in a big way," said Harmon, a minister and conservative leader in the Diocese of South Carolina. "And I do think things are more polarized now."

The Episcopal General Convention, which begins June 13 in Columbus, Ohio, must respond to fellow Anglicans worldwide who were outraged by the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop - V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The votes will shape not only the church's future, but also its role as the U.S. representative of the Anglican Communion.

The emotion of the moment is visible in the explosion of blogs since the convention three years ago, when delegates voted to confirm Robinson's election. A quick Web search yields at least 20 dedicated to the plight of the 2.3 million-member denomination. The Living Church, an independent magazine, compared the tone of the discussion to "a wrestling cage match" in an editorial titled "Blood Sport."

Some bishops have complained of being flooded with hateful e-mails and of being personally attacked on the Web. Harmon, who runs the widely read titusonenine blog, has had to take down comments he said were "cynical, angry and alas, even petty." He now reviews all statements before they are posted. Some liberal-leaning blogs have had to do the same.

"The Internet and blogs do give megaphones to anonymous bigots, but they also allow you to organize more quickly and, in some instances, trade opinions across ideological lines," said Jim Naughton, a liberal who runs the blog for the Diocese of Washington and has had to warn people about the language they use there. "It intensifies the conversation for better and for worse."

But the debate goes beyond the Internet. Episcopalians with traditional beliefs on homosexuality, a minority in the denomination, feel persecuted and silenced by the majority - and their public statements reflect a deep anger over their circumstances.

A conservative group called Lay Episcopalians for the Anglican Communion is pressing for a church trial of Robinson and the dozens of bishops who consecrated him. A spokesman for the advocates, James Ince, said his group was engaged in "a fight to the death of our church." The debate is becoming more direct and truthful, not harsh, he said.

"You can expect the liberals not to appreciate the clear, straight language from lay organizations because they're used to this goody goody two-shoes pantywaist stuff," Ince said.

The Rev. Paul Zahl, dean of the conservative Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., said in a May 10 letter posted on the school's Web site that an "army of Brown shirts" was falsely interpreting Scripture to fuel "the gay-agenda steamroller."

Some moderates and liberals have responded by accusing traditionalists of being more concerned with power than with faith. In a recent edition of The Washington Window, the newspaper of the Diocese of Washington, Naughton wrote a two-part report called "Following the Money," linking conservative Episcopal advocates to right-wing donors intent on fighting the political stands of liberal Protestants.

Perhaps the most inflammatory commentary can be found on the Web site virtueonline, where founder David Virtue offers his own and others' traditionalist views in ways that even some fellow conservatives find offensive. For example, Virtue refers to one of the church's first openly gay priests as the "First Sodomite." Virtue caused an uproar at the 2003 General Convention when he published last-minute claims of impropriety against Robinson that bishops quickly deemed baseless.

Delegates will be entering the convention in Columbus under a heavy burden. They will decide whether to fulfill a request from Anglican leaders for a moratorium on electing partnered gay Episcopal bishops and on creating blessing ceremonies for gay couples.

Anglicans worldwide will be watching closely. The Communion teaches that gay sex is "incompatible with Scripture," and if overseas archbishops think the General Convention has not moved far enough toward following that teaching, it could split the 77 million-member Communion.

"I definitely think the tenor of the conversation is a little stronger right now, primarily because both sides of the political issue think there's a lot to lose and there is," said Brother Karekin Yarian of Every Voice Network, which works with moderates and liberals in diocesan groups called Via Media. "Both sides are concerned about the church splitting and no one wants to see that happen."