WASHINGTON -- The Rev. Robert Duncan, 60, is not a Lutheran, but he is a Luther, of sorts. The former Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh has, in effect, said the words with which Martin Luther shattered Christendom and asserted the primacy of individual judgment and conscience that defines the modern temperament: "Ich kann nicht anders" -- I cannot do otherwise.
The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh recently became the second diocese (the first was in Fresno, Calif.) to secede from the U.S. Episcopal Church since, but not entirely because of, the 2003 ordination in New Hampshire of an openly gay bishop -- Gene Robinson, a classmate of Duncan's at General Theological Seminary in New York in the 1970s. Before the Robinson controversy, other Episcopalians, from South Carolina to Southern California, had disassociated from the Episcopal Church and put themselves under the authority of conservative Anglican bishops who serve where the church is flourishing -- often in sub-Saharan Africa, where a majority of Anglicans live.
It is not the secessionists such as Duncan who are, as critics charge, obsessed with homosexuality. The Episcopal Church's leadership is latitudinarian -- tolerant to the point of incoherence, Duncan and kindred spirits think -- about clergy who deviate from traditional church teachings concerning such core doctrines as the divinity of Christ, the authority of scripture and the path to salvation. But the national church insists on the ordination of openly gay clergy and on blessing same-sex unions.
In the 1960s, Bishop James Pike of California, who urged the church to jettison such "theological baggage" as the doctrines of Original Sin and the Trinity, was the last active bishop disciplined for theological reasons. Duncan doubts whether Pike would be disciplined today.
Duncan became a bishop in 1995, at age 47, in an Episcopal Church already roiled by dissension about the ordination of women, revision of the prayer book and other matters. But, Duncan says, "I wish it" -- the issue that finally precipitated secession -- "had been some other issue." He means some controversy, other than Robinson's ordination, turning on scriptural authority.
The shrinking Episcopal Church (2.4 million members, down from 3.5 million at its peak in 1965) is a small sliver of the worldwide Anglican communion (at least 77 million and expanding rapidly). Its travails are, Duncan says, yet another lingering echo of the 1960s.