Episcopalians Prepare for Meeting amid Widening Rift

In an Easter season letter to leaders of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury set out their priorities for a once-a-decade summit planned for 2008. The note was all about survival: How do we heal the feuds over gay clergy and other rifts and manage to hold together 77 million followers around the world?

But a deeper question – being asked with increasing urgency – is whether it's worth the effort.

Some critical judgments may emerge when the Episcopal Church – the American branch of the embattled Anglican family – begins its General Convention on Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio.

What's at stake seems profound: A nearly 500-year-old religious tradition going back to King Henry VIII's famous break from the Vatican to establish the Church of England. But the modern reality is much more messy.

Factions have engaged in theological combat since the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Conservative dioceses are withholding money, congregations are looking for leadership – and the Anglican Communion has no central authority or doctrine to try to rally around. In short: Many bricks but not much mortar.

Some are tired of unity, if all it means is more fighting, and a formal rupture would effectively mean little in the pews. Priests and followers have generally picked their sides. But theologians worry an Anglican disintegration would set a worrying example to other mainline Protestant denominations struggling over gay clergy and same-sex unions – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) among them.

"There's a de facto split now," said Andrew Carey, a British-based commentator on Anglican affairs. "We can't say it's broken beyond repair, but it's effectively impaired. Everyone is watching what will come next."

The delegates heading for Ohio have the opportunity to seek calm or more confrontation.

In crafting a message to other Anglican churches, they could send an olive branch to conservatives worldwide fuming over same-sex blessings and Robinson's widespread acceptance in the West. A snub, however, would reinforce perceptions that the communion is locked in a fatal battle over what it should stand for.

Liberals, including many in the Episcopal Church, say issues of social justice and anti-discrimination are the priorities for the 21st century. Traditionalists, led by Africans and the so-called "Global South," insist on strict interpretations of the Bible and point to a 1998 Anglican declaration calling homosexuality "incompatible with Scripture."

Keeping them all under the Anglican tent is the goal of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rev. Rowan Williams. He has used his position as spiritual leader of the communion to constantly appeal for unity.

"We cannot give up," he told a global conference of Christian churches in February. In this March letter, he asked the Anglican leadership to "think and pray about the challenges that face us as a worldwide church" in preparation for the 2008 conference in England.

But there's no guarantee the communion can hobble along until then. It's already a hothouse for many of the pressures facing all Christianity – such as the growing strength and assertiveness of African churches in shaping the faith.

The Anglican tensions are even sharper because no one is really in charge. Its bishops operate with wide autonomy and can either accept or ignore guidance from Williams and his advisers.

This has given conservatives the confidence to attack.

Combative Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola and other Africans have come close to full-scale mutiny. Some have refused to accept financial aid from U.S. Episcopal churches and have offered a spiritual home to parishes and seminarians in the West opposed to the liberal moves. They have numbers on their side: There are more Anglican Communion members in Africa than in Britain and North America combined.

Ironically, Africa and other impoverished points could pay the highest price if their complaints end up tearing apart the communion. Church-administered aid channels from the West could dry up. At the same time, the communion would further disintegrate into a hodgepodge of practices.

It's already happening to some extent. The Episcopal diocese in Fort Worth, Texas, refuses to ordain women despite a General Convention order in 1997 making it mandatory. In Connecticut, six parishes asked to be removed from oversight by the bishop because of his support for the gay priest Robinson. The dispute remains unresolved.

"Is the communion worth saving?" asked Carey, whose father, the Rev. George Carey, served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002. "These days, it comes down to who you ask. But, if it splits up, it will be seen as a total betrayal of the idea of Christian unity. You could say there's at least a theological imperative to keep it together."

And, some argue, important cultural common ground also hangs in the balance.

In an essay in Britain's The Guardian newspaper, a philosophy professor at Wadham College answered his own question: "Who cares about the commonwealth at prayer?"

"The Anglican Communion provides a vehicle through which smaller churches in often-ignored parts of the world can have an international voice," wrote Giles Fraser, who also is an Anglican vicar. "The fracturing of Anglicanism puts a huge network of aid, goodwill and mutual understanding at considerable risk ... (and would) create yet another fault line to set believers against each other."

The outcome of the Episcopal meeting may help set the tone.

On the table is a request from some Anglican leaders for a moratorium on electing partnered gay bishops, among other things. But it could turn its back on traditionalists and invite more attacks – such as a blistering declaration in October by "Global South" Anglicans meeting in Egypt.

"We're seeing very little compassion from people who claim to be compassionate," said Louie Crew, a retired professor of English at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., and a prominent gay Episcopal activist.

Despite the hand-wringing, no one is even certain how the communion could collapse. There is no formal structure for expulsion. But many conservatives are taking a different path: strongly backing a proposal by Archbishop Williams to set some ground rules for membership.

The "Anglican Covenant" would provide clearer rules for governing the communion and impose some specific guidelines on doctrine – which until now has been based on general Christian tradition and gives great latitude on how it's celebrated.

"It's a terrible commentary on institutional Christianity of any kind" that after 2,000 years of tradition, the rules have to be set, said the Rev. Paul Zahl, dean of the conservative Trinity Episcopal for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. "It's disturbing ... sort of theological shellshock."

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