Emboldened by an opening day of prayer, singing, and inspiring words at its special convention in Dallas, an insurgent conservative movement within the Episcopal Church is ready to tackle the nuts and bolts of a possible split with the denomination. Nearly 2,700 conservatives from across the country began a three-day meeting Tuesday with the goal of shaping plans for Episcopalians who oppose the church's increasing acceptance of gay relationships. Among those in attendance are 46 of the denomination's 300 bishops. One panel was expected to brief participants Wednesday on the practical details a split would entail for such issues as church law, clergy pensions, and property rights.
"The idea of a split is very devastating," said Christopher Culpepper, 33, a seminary student from Nashotah, Wis. "But I think it would be very difficult to remain in communion with the Episcopal Church."
At its national convention in Minneapolis this summer, the church confirmed the election of a gay bishop who lives with his partner and voted to recognize that its bishops are allowing blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
The Reverend Rick Kramer, one of about 800 priests attending the Dallas meeting, said he's attending in hopes of "taking back the church," even if that means severing ties with the denomination. That's a prevailing message at the meeting, as conservatives claim that the church's liberal wing has abandoned a message of repentance and forgiveness for an anything-goes brand of religion. "It is the gospel of affirmation rather than the gospel of salvation," said the Reverend Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the Diocese of South Carolina. "We have moved from sinners in the hands of an angry God to clients in the palm of a satisfied therapist."
Some Episcopalians who support the Minneapolis decisions are operating a hospitality suite at the hotel where the meeting is being held. The Reverend Susan Russell, president of Integrity, a caucus for 2,500
Episcopalians who support gay and lesbian rights in the church, said the meeting "represents a tiny but vocal minority."
"The schism is infinitely avoidable," she said, "but if it happens, it will be minor. The church is smarter than that and stronger than that."
A draft version of a declaration to be issued at the conclusion of the meeting on Thursday commits participants to withhold money from the national church and dioceses that support the Minneapolis decisions. It also calls on the archbishop of Canterbury and the 37 other leading bishops in the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch, to create an undefined "new alignment for Anglicanism in North America." Those 38 leaders will hold an emergency meeting in London next week to debate a possible Episcopal split and disagreement in the Anglican Church of Canada over same-sex relationships.