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Associated Press
New York – The Rev. 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 is not
the only path to salvation. And V. Gene Robinson, who lives openly with his
longtime male partner, is the bishop of New Hampshire.
Episcopalians are 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 U.S., and many Anglican leaders
overseas are infuriated by Episcopal left-leaning beliefs.
Starting on 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 Sept. 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.”
Archbishop of 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.
“I’m working very hard to stop that happening,” he told The Daily Telegraph
of London.
The 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church in the U.S. comprises only a tiny
part of the world’s 77 million Anglicans. But the wealthy U.S. denomination
covers about one-third of the communion’s budget.
Within the Episcopal Church, most parishioners either accept gay
relationships or do not want to split up over homosexuality.
However, a small minority of Episcopal traditionalists are fed up with
church leaders.
Three dioceses – San Joaquin, based in Fresno, California; Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, and Quincy, Illinois – 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 much higher.
Many of the breakaway parishes are not waiting to see what the bishops
decide in New Orleans. They have 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.
Litigation over who owns the properties has already started and will be
expensive and messy. Episcopal buildings and other holdings in the U.S. are
worth billions of dollars.
The fight is not just about the Bible and homosexuality. It is 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.
“The various debates … over my lifetime have been a fascinating study in
two ships passing each other in the night,” said the Rev. Peter Moore, a
leading conservative thinker and retired head of the Trinity Episcopal
School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. “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.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may
not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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