Frank Wade, a veteran of the brawling theological debates in
the Episcopal Church, said the denomination was once filled
with people like him: ''old white men.'' It was the
church of the establishment, the spiritual home of
more U.S. presidents than any other denomination.
Now the head of
the church is a woman who says the Bible supports gay
relationships. Many Episcopal priests believe that accepting
Jesus isn't the only path to salvation. And V. Gene
Robinson, who lives openly with his longtime male
partner, is the bishop of New Hampshire.
hardly alone among mainline Protestants in their
liberal turn, but they have been tested like no others for
their views. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body
in the United States, and many Anglican leaders
overseas are infuriated by Episcopal left-leaning
Thursday in New Orleans, Episcopal bishops will take up the
most direct demand yet that they reverse course: Anglican
leaders want an unequivocal pledge that Episcopalians
won't consecrate another gay bishop or approve
official prayers for same-gender couples. If the church
fails to do so by September 30, their full membership
in the Anglican Communion could be lost.
''I think the
bishops are going to stand up and say, 'Going backward is
not one of our options,''' said Wade of the Washington
diocese, who has led church legislative committees on
liturgy and Anglican relations. ''I don't think
there's going to be a backing down.''
Canterbury Rowan Williams is taking the rare step of
meeting privately with the bishops on the first two days of
their closed-door talks. The Anglican spiritual leader
faces a real danger that the communion, nearly five
centuries old, could break up on his watch.
very hard to stop that happening,'' he told The Daily
Telegraph of London.
million-member Episcopal Church comprises only a tiny part
of the world's 77 million Anglicans. But the wealthy
U.S. denomination covers about one third of the
Episcopal Church, most parishioners either accept gay
relationships or don't want to split up over homosexuality.
However, a small
minority of Episcopal traditionalists are fed up with
Three dioceses --
San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, and Quincy, Ill. -- are
taking steps to break away and align directly with
like-minded Anglican provinces overseas.
According to the
national church, 55 of its more than 7,000 parishes have
either already left or voted to leave the denomination, with
11 others losing a significant number of members and
clergy. Episcopal conservatives contend the losses are
Many of the
breakaway parishes aren't waiting to see what the bishops
decide in New Orleans. They've aligned with sympathetic
overseas Anglican leaders, called primates, who have
ignored communion tradition that they only oversee
churches within their own provinces.
Primates from the
predominantly conservative provinces of Nigeria,
Uganda, Kenya, and elsewhere have ordained bishops to work
in the U.S., and have set up parish networks that
rival the Episcopal Church on its own turf.
who owns the properties has already started and will be
expensive and messy. Episcopal buildings and other holdings
nationwide are worth billions of dollars.
The fight isn't
just about the Bible and homosexuality. It's fueled by
deep differences over how Scripture should be interpreted on
a wide range of issues, including salvation and truth.
The decades of
debate turned into open confrontation when Robinson was
consecrated in 2003. A church -- and global communion that
once held together Christians with diverse biblical
views found itself dividing into factions, seeing
little that could unite them.
debates ... over my lifetime have been a fascinating study
in two ships passing each other in the night,'' said the
Reverend Peter Moore, a leading conservative thinker
and retired head of the Trinity Episcopal School for
Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. ''Neither heard a thing the
other said. It was clear that both groups had made up their
minds on totally different grounds, and they were not
speaking the same language.''
The outcome of
the New Orleans meeting, which runs through Tuesday, could
turn that gap into a permanent break. (Rachel Zoll, AP)