NEW YORK (AP) - Faxes and e-mail messages have been flying among the world's Anglican churches this week as they cope with a serious challenge to authority from some within Anglicanism's U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church.
The division - at root, a disagreement over such issues as gay clergy - was triggered by events played out on the other side of the world.
A week ago, at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Singapore, two conservative American priests were consecrated as bishops to work in the United States without Episcopal Church authorization.
The leader of the 77 million Anglicans, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, quickly declared that the consecrations of the Rev. Charles H. Murphy III and the Rev. John H. Rodgers Jr. were ``irresponsible'' and said they ``only harm the unity of the communion,'' the formal name of his 77-million-member flock.
The head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, said, ``I am appalled by this irregular action. ...
``These two men have been ordained outside all formal structures of the Anglican world,'' he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Anglican rules, based on an ecumenical council in A.D. 451, require that clergy be appointed not just to a country - in this case the United States - but to a specific locale, said Canon J. Robert Wright, a church historian.
``I don't think there's any precedent,'' Wright said.
What, then, led to the consecrations of Murphy, a rector in Pawley's Island, S.C., and Rodgers, a retired seminary dean in Ambridge, Pa.? To understand the events, it is necessary to understand the six bishops who performed the ceremony.
The ``Singapore Six'' - the host archbishop of Southeast Asia, plus Rwanda's archbishop, two retired U.S. bishops, and others from Africa and South America - are vexed over Episcopal Church liberalism, especially the freedom of its bishops to sanction actively homosexual clergy and rituals for same-sex couples.
Last year, the two archbishops added their signatures to a protest letter to Griswold, after which an international inspection team toured the United States and issued a negative report.
The consecrating prelates described their defiant action in Singapore as an emergency reaction to ``the unrebuked ridicule and denial of basic Christian teaching'' in the Episcopal Church.
The new bishops, they said, would ``give the faithful in the United States a place to remain Anglican'' and create new missions. This, they said, would help address the Episcopalians' 30 percent membership loss in recent decades.
``The church in this country is far from being in chaos and conflict,'' Griswold responded during an interview. ``The Episcopal Church is alive, well, rising and very much focused on its mission of taking Christ to a needy world.''
Elevating American bishops with no sanction from U.S. clergy and laity is what the popes do, not Anglicans, said Wright, a 29-year veteran of Anglican-Roman Catholic talks.
``To most impartial observers,'' he said, ``the Roman church is a little top-heavy, with overly strong centralized authority, and Anglicans do not have a strong enough central authority.'' After Singapore, he said, ``Anglicans around the world will ask, do we want to allow this kind of chaotic action?''
Officially, the Episcopal Church still upholds the Christian tradition limiting intimacy to heterosexual marriage. At an international conference of the Anglican hierarchy in 1998, bishops from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Mideast pushed through a conservative policy on homosexuality by a margin of 526-70.
The issue now is whether to act against the left-wingers who oppose Anglicanism's stand, the right-wingers who defy Anglicanism's rules, or both. Or, the hierarchy could do nothing, which could risk a further unraveling of church unity.
Carey, Griswold and the Singapore and Rwanda archbishops will face off in Oporto, Portugal, March 23-28 at a meeting of the leaders of Anglicanism's 38 self-governing national branches.
Professor Ian Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., among others, says a clampdown on gay clergy is ``wrongheaded'' in the present times of increasing plurality and tolerance.
But some conservatives are also upset, believing the action in Singapore was premature and divisive.
Last November, the conservative leaders of a dozen Anglican branches met in Uganda and, according to Australia's Archbishop Harry Goodhew, agreed to do nothing on gay issues until Oporto. Goodhew expressed ``profound disappointment'' that the Singapore and Rwanda archbishops broke ranks with the consecrations.
Rodgers' conservative colleagues at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry said in a statement, ``We fear that this will lead to the splintering and erosion of evangelical and orthodox solidarity within the church as well as to a false caricature of biblical renewal as inherently schismatic.''