The group has named itself Hudson-Stow Anglican Fellowship Church. But Hudson-Stow doesn't have the blessing of Bishop Clark Grew of the Diocese of Ohio, under whose authority Christ Church--as well as every other Episcopal Church in Northern Ohio--falls. In fact, Grew sent a letter informing them he won't tolerate Hudson-Stow's alternative service. Phil Warburton, a member of Christ Church for 12 years, received the Bishop's letter and says, "I felt like I was in the Middle Ages, receiving a directive from the Pope."
Warburton's group plans to break away from Christ Church-and, in all likelihood, from the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA). The group opposes ECUSA's consecration in November of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly homosexual priest, as Bishop of New Hampshire. One former vestry member estimates that 30 percent of Christ Church's 200 active members left after the consecration. The former finance chairman says giving went from $52,000 to $25,000 the month following Robinson's consecration. The chaos in this parish, about 20 miles south of Cleveland, is representative of events at Episcopal Churches nationwide.
And so it appears that the predicted church schism resulting from Robinson's consecration is underway, and has a name: The Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes. The Network has the support of 13 Episcopal dioceses with an estimated combined membership of more than 200,000: Albany; Pittsburgh; San Joaquin in California; South Carolina; Florida, Central Florida, and Southwest Florida; Dallas and Fort Worth; Quincy and Springfield in Illinois; Western Kansas; and Rio Grande, which includes parts of Texas and New Mexico. Network officials predict the dispute will eventually split ECUSA's 2.5 million-membership in half.
Anglican Mainstream, an alliance of conservative Anglicans worldwide, is soliciting signatures of Network supporters from around the globe. To date, the site has collected over 440,000 signatures, though that number is hard to evaluate, since individuals can sign for themselves or for their family, parish, diocese, or province. The count so far includes 3,572 individuals; 2,874 families, totalling 10,315 people; 196 parishes, totalling 57,995 people; four dioceses, comprising 184,400 people; one province, comprising 184,000 people.
Meanwhile, 16 of the bishops (called primates) of the Worldwide Anglican Communion's 38 provinces (usually a province encompasses a country or a world region) have said they will recognize the new network.
The issue of schism within the Episcopal church is complicated by the relatively un-hierarchical organizing structure of the faith. The Anglican Communion is a fellowship of national churches affiliated with the Church of England, who meet formally at Lambeth Conferences (named after Lambeth Palace where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of the Church of England, resides), once every 10 years to discuss church doctrine. The Episcopal church in the US is a province within this communion.
The Network is pushing for a parallel Anglican province separate from the Episcopal Church. The new province would be made up of conservative parishes, priests and lay people from Canada, the United States and the Caribbean, under the direction of Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh. The eventual goal, organizers say, is for the Network to win recognition as the authentic "Episcopal Church" from Anglican bishops overseas and from Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox denominations that have already condemned the Episcopal Church for its actions --effectively replacing the current Episcopal church as the legitimate face of Anglicanism in America.
"The Episcopal Church is a terrible mess," Duncan says. "The Episcopal Church has been a great world tradition, and why should I let the minority of liberal bishops in the world--the majority of whom happen to be in ECUSA--destroy the church?" Duncan says God has put him in this leading role to "protect the sheep from the elected bishop. I don't have a right to just walk away from it."
According to Duncan, it was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who suggested, and continues to encourage, the Network. "He said it to me the day after the Primates meeting and he said it to me again, in an email communication just last week."