According to London newspapers, a panel headed by Irish Archbishop Robin Eames will likely come down hard on the U.S. church when it releases its report Oct. 18. Sanctions could vary from denying Episcopalians membership in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion to a sort of probation that would isolate the U.S. church from the rest of the Anglican family.
American conservatives have pushed hard for a "realignment" of the church in North America, ranging from outright divorce to a church-within-a-church setup with bishops who operate beyond traditional boundaries.
U.S. church leaders, meanwhile, are lobbying London to go easy on the Americans. On Sunday (Sept. 12), U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold appealed to allow the Holy Spirit to "make room for new realities" in a sermon at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
A separate delegation of four U.S. bishops from Massachusetts, Ohio, Tennessee and Colorado flew to London to meet with the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, to discuss "the full spectrum of opinions facing local dioceses in the United States."
Both sides have worked hard to downplay expectations from the Eames report. The messy work of reconciliation or retaliation will not come quickly, they say, or easily.
In a preview of what conservatives might have in mind, they recruited their ideological soulmate, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, to preside Wednesday (Sept. 15) at back-to-back confirmation rites at Truro (Episcopal) Church in Fairfax, a flagship for U.S. conservatives.
Carey confirmed more than 300 people whose 11 parishes told Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia that he was persona non grata because he consented to openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Lee's only presence was his black-and-white photo in the church vestibule.
In singing the hymn "The Church's One Foundation," the packed assembly bemoaned a church "sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed." In the service's 16-page program, "Episcopal" was noticeably absent from the names of the participating churches.
Still, Carey took pains to thank Lee for allowing him to stand in for the bishop. "The issue is not between people who lack good faith or integrity," Carey told reporters before the ceremony.
And Lee, in an interview, praised Carey for not attempting to slip into his diocese under the radar screen. "If this is what is necessary to honor their consciences and maintain the unity of the church, I'm willing to do this," he said.
Carey cautioned that the problems in the church probably extend beyond what the Eames task force is able to solve, and attempted to prepare conservatives for only a partial win. "The Eames Commission really doesn't have any teeth," he said.
The Truro model-in which a local bishop partially cedes his authority in order to keep the peace-could offer a way forward for the badly divided church, but both sides agree it is like using a Band-Aid to recover from open-heart surgery.
"It's a temporary pastoral gesture," Lee said. "But what temporary means in the eyes of the church could be a long time."
For his part, Carey said the arrangement had promise-"the principle is one we need to keep in mind," he said-but stressed he did not cross the Atlantic to offer models of edgy co-existence.
Diane Knippers, a leading conservative who testified to the Eames Commission and is a member of Truro Church, welcomed the model but was skeptical about its long-term merits.
"This is a temporary accommodation to our needs," said Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank that monitors mainline denominations. "It doesn't provide us with a long-term relationship with a bishop in whom we can have confidence."