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Rio Grande Episcopal diocese sees ‘change of identity’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At the time of her 2008 visit to Albuquerque, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori sings with congregants as she enters the Cathedral of St. John on Sunday. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori sings with congregants as she enters the Cathedral of St. John on Sunday. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

headed a congregation torn, both in New Mexico and nationally, over the role of gays and lesbians in the church.

The Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande was preparing to select a new bishop to replace former Bishop Jeffrey N. Steenson, who resigned in 2007 to join the Roman Catholic Church over the issue.

Several New Mexico congregations had split from the diocese and others were discussing similar moves.

Today, with same-sex marriage legal in 37 states, including New Mexico, conflict within the church has subsided “immensely,” the oceanographer-turned-priest said during a weekend visit to New Mexico.

“I think the pace of change in the wider society has surprised a lot of people,” Jefferts Schori said Sunday after presiding over Holy Eucharist at a packed Cathedral of St. John in Albuquerque.

Debate within the Episcopal Church of the United States and other denominations helped change attitudes toward gays and lesbians in broader society, she said.

“The work that the churches have been doing over the last 50 years around issues of homosexuality and the place of gay and lesbian people in the church, I think, is part of why this has happened,” Jefferts Schori said in an interview.

“Giving people permission to be who they are in the church community has let straight people know that they have gay family members and co-workers and fellow congregants, and that has made a real difference,” she said.

In New Mexico, Bishop Michael Vono announced in January 2013 that Episcopal priests in the Rio Grande Diocese could begin to bless same-sex relationships.

Vono said Sunday that the move caused no upheaval within the diocese and that none of its 150 clergy members has resigned over the decision.

Vono credited Jefferts Schori with creating an environment of reconciliation that has helped quell conflict within the 2 million-member denomination.

“She has introduced a whole new concept that the church is not really an institution,” said Vono, who became bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande in 2010. “We are all on the same mission to preach the gospel.”

Since 2008, total membership in the diocese has grown from about 18,000 to nearly 21,000, he said. The number of congregations has grown from 58 to 63.

Jefferts Schori’s visit came as she nears the end of her nine-year term as leader of the Episcopal Church of the United States. She will step down in July when her successor is elected.

The Episcopal Church today is a more “moderate” denomination than when Jefferts Schori was elected presiding bishop in 2006, said Carol McGowan, a 24-year member of the church.

“The change I’ve seen is that the church has had a change of identity to one that invites everyone to the table,” McGowan said after Holy Eucharist at the Cathedral of St. John.

“We’re still on that path to see what that means,” she said.

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