More than 1,000 conservative Anglican leaders were in Jerusalem on Sunday to open a week of discussions looking at the future of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, the face of the conservative movement, stopped short of forecasting an imminent schism but said that the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) was the last opportunity to salvage the 77 million-strong Communion.
"The Communion is in a state of brokenness," he said in his opening address.
The Archbishop of Uganda, the Most Rev. Henry Orombi, declined to comment on whether GAFCON was the first step in a split from Canterbury. "Perhaps a question like that is best answered at the end [of the conference] rather than at the beginning," Orombi commented.
Unity is the goal, Archbishop of Sydney the Most Rev. Peter Jensen said, but he admitted that it might not be achieved.
"What we would like to see is the renewal of the Communion so that we can all again walk together," Jensen said. "I'm not confident that it can be done."
But Jensen pointed out that schism already began when the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated the openly gay V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire and the Diocese of New Westminster in the Anglican Church of Canada blessed same-sex unions in 2003.
"What the Americans did in 2003 and what the Canadians did was to rip the communion," Jensen said. "If we're talking about schism and the breakup of the communion – that's where it starts and that is where the responsibility is. What GAFCON is doing is saying that given that new state of affairs, how now can we live together and how can we sustain the highest level of communion and work well together.
"My way of putting it is to say that the British Empire has now ceased to be and the British commonwealth of nations has come into existence or the nuclear family has turned into an extended family. This is the new reality. I don't hear GAFCON saying or GAFCON being a further cause for schism."
GAFCON comes just weeks ahead of the Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world.
Although some conservative leaders will attend both conferences, most of the 300 bishops attending the Jerusalem conference are boycotting Lambeth, GAFCON's head of media relations, Arne Fjeldstad, said.
Conservative Anglicans have been at odds with the Communion's leadership after it failed to discipline the U.S. Episcopal Church over its consecration of Robinson in 2003, a move they regard as unbiblical.
Orombi urged the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, to take a tougher line.
"We have been on fire for quite a while, and he just cannot leave us burning and delay. At what time will you salvage us?" he asked. "Supposing another part of the communion begins to do something which is contrary to the word of God, how is it going to stand up and say no to that? That's my challenge."
Their concerns go beyond the issue of homosexuality, however, to the general interpretation of the Bible among liberals, and questioning over the authority of Scripture and of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
A guideline, entitled "The Way, the Truth and the Life," issued to GAFCON delegates stated, "Repeated attempts at dialogue have been made by those committed to the teaching of Scripture. However, experience has shown that the revisionists are not willing to listen."
"We want unity," it added, "but not at the cost of re-writing the Bible to accommodate the latest cultural trend."
Akinola acknowledged that many are not happy about the separate conference conservatives are holding. But he stressed, "We must disabuse our minds of the unworthy views about GAFCON being a monster on the horizon, or even a strange breed of Anglicanism devoid of antecedent factors."
He called GAFCON a "rescue mission," saying they can no longer trust where some of the Communion leaders are taking them.
"We cannot succumb to this turmoil in our Communion and simply watch helplessly," he stated. "Our beloved Anglican Communion must be rescued from the manipulation of those who have denied the gospel and its power to transform and to save; those who have departed from the scripture and the faith 'once and for all delivered to the saints' from those who are proclaiming a new gospel, which really is no gospel at all. In the wisdom and strength God supplies we must rescue what is left of the Church from error of the apostates."