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Church rift cuts deeper for brothers

Episcopal priests hold opposing views on gays

The Rev. Brian Murdoch (left), who is gay, and his brother, the Rev. Bill Murdoch, remain amicable. (Left photo by Bill Greene/Globe Staff. Right photo by Robert Spencer for The Boston Globe)
The Rev. Brian Murdoch (left), who is gay, and his brother, the Rev. Bill Murdoch, remain amicable. (Left photo by Bill Greene/Globe Staff. Right photo by Robert Spencer for The Boston Globe)

The Murdoch brothers don't often talk about the controversy dividing the Episcopal Church, but they really don't have to: In the Murdoch family, schism starts at home.

The Rev. Bill Murdoch, 58, an Episcopal priest in West Newbury, is so frustrated by the Episcopal Church's selection of an openly gay bishop that he is bolting and taking his parish with him. At the end of this month, he is to be consecrated a bishop by the Anglican Church of Kenya, and he will return to the North Shore to start a new Kenya-affiliated parish there.

But the Rev. Brian Murdoch, 53, an Episcopal priest in West Roxbury, is not planning to join his brother for the ceremony in Nairobi and is not celebrating his elevation to bishop.

That's because Brian, as Bill has long known, is gay.

The crisis in the Anglican Communion, set off by the Episcopal Church's decision to approve a gay bishop who is not celibate to lead the New Hampshire diocese, has divided parishes and dioceses and is threatening to split the global church.

But the Murdochs, who maintain amicable relations with one another despite their differences, provide a rare example of how personal the theological dispute can be and how complex the responses.

Two brother-priests, unable to resolve a deep disagreement in the way they interpret the Bible, find themselves ministering just a few miles apart and yet divided by an ocean. Despite their shared commitment to follow Jesus and uphold the rituals and traditions of Anglican Christianity, they are now members of rival camps in an unusual intradenominational battle and are trying to make sure it doesn't become an intrafamily fight too.

"I am less bugged now than I have been at times," Brian Murdoch said in an interview at his parish, Emmanuel Episcopal, a tiny 19th-century church in a West Roxbury neighborhood. "He's my brother. I have a lot of memories that have been good growing up, and those stand. And I know we'll be helping one another get heavenly aid the rest of our days. And it's not going to change how we cut the pie at the table."

Bill Murdoch, who since 1993 has been the rector of All Saints Episcopal in West Newbury, but is planning soon to launch All Saints Anglican at a former Catholic parish in Amesbury, offered a similar assessment.

"My brother and I love each other and always will," he said by e-mail. "My family and I love Brian and have always been proud of his service to others for the sake of the Gospel and the many, many people Brian has loved in the name of Christ. The pain of our disagreement over this issue will not change my love for him."

But beyond their love for each other, they are deeply divided. Bill Murdoch calls homosexual activity a sin, while Brian Murdoch calls it a gift. Bill Murdoch says same-sex relations are "alternative to that which God and the church has created and blessed," while Brian Murdoch has blessed two same-sex couples.

Bill Murdoch is the top official in New England of the Anglican Communion Network, an alliance of current and former Episcopalians opposed to the church's increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships; Brian Murdoch allows his parish to be host to Integrity, an organization pushing for greater gay rights in the Episcopal Church.

Although many Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Massachusetts know the Murdoch brothers and although Brian is out as a gay man in his parish, this is the first time either has talked about the other publicly. Both brothers were reluctant to talk, and Bill declined to do so in any detail, but Brian consented to an interview, saying he had decided he was willing to go public after reading a story in the Globe last month in which Bill referred to homosexuality as a sin and decried the influence of the "gay agenda" on the Episcopal Church.

In a brief telephone conversation, Bill Murdoch said that he harbors no ill will toward gays and that the dispute is about interpretation of Scripture.

"Intolerance and abusive behavior toward gay people is abhorrent to Christ, the Gospel, and his church," he said. "Hostility toward gay people is a sin. It's prohibited by any Christian pastor, period."

But for Brian Murdoch, the issue is far more personal.

"I wonder what he would do if my partner and I went to Kenya for the consecration and were jailed," he said, referring to the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Kenya.

The Murdoch brothers grew up in a large extended Catholic family on Connors Road in Peabody, a street that was named for their grandfather, Patrick Connors. Connors had a farm and nine children, seven of whom survived to adulthood; five of the children built houses on Connors Road, and two others lived around the corner. The seven Murdoch children (an eighth died at birth) grew up surrounded by their cousins.

The Murdoch brothers were both altar boys, Brian at St. Adelaide in West Peabody, and Bill at Our Lady of the Assumption in Lynnfield, and on Sundays they would go to church with a group of several-dozen family members. But two of their uncles had married Episcopalians, and in high school and college they began to explore Protestantism. They were both football players and got involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Over time, they both migrated away from Catholicism.

Bill pursued theological studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton before being ordained, first at a Congregational church and then by the Episcopal Church. Brian went to General Theological Seminary in New York City and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1987.

Their personal lives diverged in the early '70s; Bill got married while he was still an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, while Brian, as an undergraduate at Boston College, began grappling with the realization that he might be gay. Fifteen years later, in 1989, Brian came out in a letter to his parents and siblings.

"I have come to know that I am one of the 'special people,' as Whoopi Goldberg refers to gay men and women," he wrote. "I am hope-filled, not ashamed or angry, that this would be the hand I must play."

Over the years, they have remained friendly; for a time, Brian lived with Bill and his wife.

But from the moment of the consecration of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, their differences have become harder to ignore.

On the day Robinson donned his miter, at a ceremony so big it had to be held in the University of New Hampshire hockey arena, the Rev. Brian J. Murdoch was among the several thousand attending and celebrating. He called the event "glorious" and "exhilarating."

The Rev. William L. Murdoch was also in Durham, N.H., that day, but speaking at an alternative worship service attended by several hundred disaffected conservatives who believed the fact that Robinson has been in a long-term relationship with a man disqualified him from being a bishop.

At the time, Bill Murdoch said that with Robinson's election, "It felt as though something very precious had been sullied."

Now, Bill Murdoch is one of several American priests who have agreed to take the unprecedented step of leaving the American church and joining African Anglican provinces. He will have responsibility assisting the several dozen American congregations that have affiliated with the Kenyan province; other American congregations are affiliating with Anglican provinces in Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda.

"We do feel the need to separate from the Episcopal Church in this struggle, because of the crisis that has been brought about with the election of a noncelibate gay bishop," Bill Murdoch said in an interview last month. "I'm not against gay people, and neither is anybody in my church. But it's the church's blessing of a noncelibate, practicing gay that has caused a problem. It blesses what Scripture condemns as sin."

Brian Murdoch says Scripture needs to be interpreted and is understood in different ways at different periods of history.

"I think that the church certainly has been wrong on things," he said. "As time goes along, we listen to what the Scriptures have said and keep working with them. We have to use the tradition. as well as our own hearts, souls, and minds."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

(Clarification: A photo caption accompanying a story last Sunday on two Episcopal priest-brothers who hold opposing views on homosexuality incorrectly gave the impression that there is a rift between the brothers. In fact, both brothers said that although they are in rival camps when it comes to the church's ordination of an openly gay bishop, they are trying to make sure their division does not become an intrafamily fight.)

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