PLANO, Texas -- The Rev. Canon David Roseberry has built the congregation he started with 13 members back in 1985 into the Episcopal church that boasts the largest attendance in the nation.
His success with the flourishing Christ Church Episcopal - which draws 2,200 worshippers each weekend to this Dallas suburb - has helped make him a national leader in the conservative revolt against his denomination's consecration of an openly gay bishop.
"I feel like a very unlikely leader for all of this," said the 48-year-old rector.
Yet his church will welcome a constituting convention of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes next week - a meeting that will put Roseberry, once again, in the thick of the debate over homosexuality within his denomination.
The convention's aim will be to produce some sort of church-within-a-church arrangement, so that Episcopal conservatives - estimated by opponents as roughly 15 percent of the denomination's 2.3 million members - can work together directly. The network's relationship to the Episcopal Church's national structure is still emerging.
Bishops, clergy and lay delegates from as many as a dozen conservative dioceses plan to develop an organizational charter and a theological platform during the two-day session, which starts Monday.
Roseberry's high-profile role doesn't surprise the Rev. Alden Hathaway, a former Pittsburgh bishop who became the priest's mentor after a chance meeting in Tucson, Ariz., two decades ago.
"He's a natural leader," said Hathaway, now retired and living in Tallahassee, Fla. "I think one reason why is the way he sees himself. He doesn't have any aspirations or any ego or any need to put himself forward at all."
When Hathaway first met Roseberry in the early 1980s, the recent seminary graduate was divorced and out of sorts, unsure what he believed. After two years of ministry in his native Arizona, Roseberry said, he was "out of gas and had no strength.
"I was preaching a kind of open-ended, God-loves-you, easy gospel, and I realized that people weren't changing."
Hathaway challenged him to "take a giant leap of faith and trust the Scriptures."
Roseberry said emphasis on the Bible as the error-free word of God was a new concept for him and changed his approach to ministry. When he started Christ Church, he said, he wanted a parish as rooted in the Scriptures as in ceremonial tradition.
His vision of a Bible-believing church plays heavily in his opposition to the Episcopal General Convention's approval last August of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as New Hampshire bishop. Robinson has lived openly with his male partner for 14 years.
"There are fewer subjects about which the Bible is more clear than homosexuality," Roseberry said.
For those on the other side, however, the issue is far less clear-cut.
The Rev. Canon Mark Harris, a Delaware priest, said he finds it offensive when conservatives such as Roseberry so easily dismiss progressive interpretations of the Bible.
"I'm glad (Roseberry) is struggling with Scriptures," said Harris, past director of the Global Episcopal Mission Network. "It just happens when I struggle with them, I come out in a different place as to whether gays and lesbians ought to have a place in the church."
After the General Convention's vote in Minneapolis, Roseberry resigned as a delegate and booked a flight home.
In October, his church hosted a meeting of 2,700 Episcopal traditionalists at a Dallas hotel. Roseberry moderated the meeting and helped take the group's concerns to leaders of the global Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch.
As he has spoken out, his own past has drawn scrutiny. A Dallas Morning News columnist noted that Roseberry's divorce "would disqualify him as a minister or even deacon" in many churches.
"I confessed my sin," Roseberry told The Associated Press. "God gave me a new chance."
He and his second wife, Fran, married 20 years ago. He adopted her two children and they had two of their own.
Christ Church combines Episcopal liturgy and communion with a biblical emphasis that Roseberry suggests most parishes lack. The musical program ranges from the 18th century "All Hail The Power of Jesus' Name" to the 21st century "Here I Am To Worship."
The mix of sacred rites and evangelical-style preaching drew John Bock, who grew up Roman Catholic, and his wife, Melody Bock, who was raised Southern Baptist. An estimated 75 percent of parishioners had no Episcopal ties before joining Christ Church.
"God didn't call me to be Baptist, Methodist or anything else," said Melody Bock. "He called me to be his child."
But while denominational labels mean nothing to many of Roseberry's parishioners, the Episcopal rift deeply troubles their priest.
"The Episcopal Church that I've given my life to and that really raised me has a rip in the hull that is going to send it to the bottom of the ocean in just a matter of decades," he said. "I don't want to have wasted my life on a sinking ship."
On the Net:
Christ Church Episcopal: http://www.christchurchplano.org
Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes: http://www.anglicancommuniondioceses.org
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