Since 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated a partnered gay man as bishop of New Hampshire, there have been growing fears of a formal split within the U.S. church, or between it and the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Now, as bishops of the Episcopal Church begin a crucial meeting in New Orleans today, concern about the future of the church and its place within the global Anglican fellowship is at center stage.
The bishops, who will meet through Tuesday, are to consider a directive from leaders of the Anglican Communion that the U.S. church stop ordaining openly gay bishops and bar blessings of same-sex couples, or risk playing a reduced role in the communion.
The Anglican leaders have asked the Episcopal Church, the American branch of Anglicanism, for an unequivocal response by Sept. 30.
In one indication of the significance of the New Orleans meeting, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who serves as spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, will attend for the first two days. Williams, who has not met with the U.S. bishops since 2003, will hold private discussions with the group, officials said.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, has set a calming tone in the days before the meeting. In a video for members on the church’s website, she described talk of a potential schism as “excessive.” The communion has “never been without conflict,” she said. “It’s a sign that we are engaged with challenging issues . . . and it is necessary to our growth.”
And in a recent telephone interview, Jefferts Schori said that despite the approaching deadline, the Episcopal Church would “continue to be the church on Oct. 1 and in November and beyond.” She said she did not expect major changes in the church’s relationships within the communion as a result of the meeting.
But in interviews this week, other Episcopal leaders and observers predicted that the bishops would not meet the Anglican demand. And that, nearly all agreed, could widen -- and harden -- existing divisions.
Several Episcopal dioceses, including Fresno-based San Joaquin, are taking steps to break with the national church and place themselves under the authority of conservative Anglican bishops abroad. About 50 Episcopal parishes, including several in Southern California, have done the same. And the leaders of several Anglican national or regional churches also have threatened to leave the communion.
“Some people are going to be formally distanced from the Anglican Communion after this meeting,” predicted the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading Episcopal conservative and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, a theological graduate school in Toronto.
Radner described the meeting as the most significant for the church in at least three years.
For many years, the Episcopal Church has been at odds with much of the Anglican Communion over the U.S. church’s more liberal views on homosexuality and scriptural teachings. The Episcopal Church directly challenged the prevailing conservative views of the communion in 2003 when it consecrated V. Gene Robinson, a gay man living with his partner, as bishop of New Hampshire.
In February, tensions escalated further when three dozen top Anglican leaders, known as primates, issued the directive on gay bishops and same-sex blessings at a meeting in Tanzania. They also urged the Episcopal Church to create an alternative structure to oversee conservative breakaway parishes and dioceses, with several of its members to be appointed by clerics outside the United States.
The Episcopal bishops rejected the oversight proposal in May, saying it could lead to the permanent division of the Episcopal church. And in June, the church’s executive council turned down the demand on same-sex unions and gay bishops. Such decisions, the council said, could only be made by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, which is not scheduled to meet until 2009.
The Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, said Wednesday that he did not expect those decisions to be overturned at the bishops’ meeting. “I don’t believe we have the power to go beyond that before the General Convention,” he said. “And if the primates think some magic change will occur in the House of Bishops and the national church in which we say we rescind everything, that’s not going to happen.”