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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 4, 2006

Dispute tears at heart of church

 •  Request for different leader helps healing

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

While church is a place to find peace and serenity, for Charlene Pinao, there's wasn't a whole lot of that at Calvary Episcopal Church during a particularly painful stretch in 2003.

"It's been a long road," said Pinao, with a sigh. "You go to church to feel as if you belong to something, you're part of something."

What happens to churchgoers faced with disagreements on a major scale? After the Episcopalian 2003 general convention in which the Kane'ohe church went head-to-head with its diocese over the issue of gay clergy and same-sex blessings, the congregation suffered the ups and downs of being a church in conflict, though it seems to have weathered the worst.

"It was gut-wrenching," recalled Pinao, who serves as junior warden but is about to become treasurer at the church. "The healing is going along, finally, but it's like being cut to the bone when you're faced with someone who is your brother or sister in Christ and they are exactly 180 degrees (in opposition) on an issue.

"You can't stay in communion ... because they think you're dead wrong, and you think they're dead wrong."

She wasn't the only one hurting.

"After the convention, there was a lot of upset," recalled the Rev. Joe Carr, Calvary's rector. "... Initially, after the general convention, our (congregation) decreased. ... When a church is in conflict, it doesn't grow."

There were those who wanted the church to take a strong stand against the diocese, while some wanted to find ways to reconcile the differences of opinion. Others agreed with the diocese on the issue of gay clergy and left the church.

"Some people were deeply hurt," Pinao recalled. "Several people from church left, after years and years of feeling like they're part of the body. It felt like an amputation."

And perhaps you could describe what remains as a ghost nerve, that feeling of pain in an amputee's lost limb. Pinao said the shadow of hurt remains.

"It's still hard when you see the people, and they don't come to our church," Pinao said. "... While we're not raw and bleeding to the bone, there's still a few tender spots."

Eventually, Pinao said, those still at Calvary and the diocese "agreed to disagree."

The good news, Carr said, is that the church now is prayerfully moving forward, and "we're beginning to see new growth again."

Laura Fink, whose husband, Bruce, is on vestry, said the past years saw plenty of unhappiness with both the diocese and by extension at least in a few people's minds its head, Bishop Richard Chang.

"Keep in mind that for past year or so, there's been people in congregation pretty unhappy with the Diocese of Hawai'i who have not really wanted (Chang) to do confirmations and reaffirmations if ... Bishop Chang was putting his hands on their heads."

Since Chang agreed to allow another bishop to take over "pastoral" duties, however, "I feel better about Bishop Chang, and I'll be more receptive to having him be the celebrant and preacher" when he comes for his annual visit next weekend, Fink said.

Chang himself knows that making hard decisions and being the embodiment of those hard decisions is par for the course when you're bishop.

The human sexuality conflict, however, had no bearing in his decision to retire in 2007 after 10 years as bishop and 40 years of service to the church, he said.

Chang, 65, said he likes to take the conciliatory path wherever possible, he said, though that, too, can have its detractors: "To some people, I'm wishy-washy; for others, too harsh," he said.

But he had kind words for Calvary: "Calvary has been very clear where it stands, and that's been helpful in my dealing with them."

"We're fortunate, the people in Hawai'i, that relationships are forged in a way that we can continue conversation in a way that's helpful to the church," he said.

Fink and others in turn praised Chang for helping them find a good replacement.

"He's been very gracious," Fink said. "It's Bishop Chang's last year and I'm looking forward to what he has to say from pulpit. ... He's been so supportive and loving, a good kahu. We have to realize his difficult position. He has been da bomb! He's defended our right to disagree, while graciously defending (other positions). It's not easy for him, I'm sure. ... Some don't realize what a position he's been in."

For those who choose not to come to church when Chang makes his annual visit next weekend, his final before retiring in 2007, well ... "Maybe you can stay home and watch a football game or something," Fink said.

"If somebody registers a real complaint, I'd have to say, this is his last visit as bishop, he has no more Sundays to come to Calvary," she said. "If you really can't stand it, just come to Sunday school. Work with us a little bit."

Senior warden Warren Na'ai said there's been a real turnaround recently as the church finds ways to stay its course and yet not leave the diocese.

"We're not being mired in 'woe is me' as victims," he said. "We'll try to stay as healthy as we can as a church. The time of the traumatic event is over. We need to move on and become the church again."

Carr, too, knows the past two years have seen progress.

"We have prayerfully moved forward," he said. "... The first year was very difficult, with a lot of disappointment in the larger church. But the past year has been wonderful; we've regained our focus."