2016-06-30
On a bitterly cold Thursday evening two weeks ago, 70 people gather to worship in the fellowship hall of an evangelical church in Hudson, Ohio. They are former members of Christ Episcopal Church, located a half-mile down the road. On the double doors leading into the room is a 2-by-1 foot sign that reads: A Place to Stand. You Are Not Alone.

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."

"We'll continue to operate the way we've understood that faith has always operated," he says. "The church leadership doesn't trust the Lord enough to let us be, to give us the freedom to operate in the traditional way. They want us eliminated. But we're not going away."

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."

Conservatives hope for formal recognition by the Archbishop, which they believe could mean priests wishing to join the Network would not have to renounce their orders or be defrocked; they would not lose their pensions, endowments or have their church buildings confiscated--something that has already been threatened.

But Episcopal Church spokesman James Solheim, says the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't have the authority to support the Network. "While the Archbishop wants to see these issues resolved, he's made it clear he's not going to interfere," Solheim says. At this point, there is no legal way for Williams to "unrecognize" a member church of the Communion, such as the Episcopal Church, and to recognize a replacement church, such as the new Network.

Solheim says Network supporters seem to be ignoring a plan circulating among Episcopal bishops that will provide special "care" for conservative parishes. The plan is due to be discussed in March at a House of Bishops meeting.

The plan does not allow what is termed "oversight"--permitting conservative bishops from outside a particular parish's diocese to officially care for those conservative parishes. Both sides say the conflict is about this idea of oversight.

The Network wants conservative parishes to be permitted to leave their dioceses and join the alternative Network diocese, without financial or legal sanction. But Solheim says bishops aren't legally able to surrender this oversight, even if they wanted to-and most of them don't. And no bishops will permit a foreign primate or, for that matter, Bishop Duncan from the Network, to claim authority over parishes in their dioceses, says Solheim.

In the 1970s, a similar special "care" plan was put in place to deal with conservative parishes who opposed women's ordination. This time, unhappy congregations should not expect "direct intervention" by anyone outside the Episcopal Church in the United States--including the archbishop of Canterbury, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, the head of the Episcopal Church, wrote in a Dec. 5 letter to the church's bishops.

"In other words," says the Rev. Roger Ames, a conservative Ohio priest and Network organizer, "he's saying we're on our own."

Messy litigation is now entirely possible, say both sides. Church leaders could sue Duncan in civil court to remove him from office as an Episcopal bishop. To that, Duncan says, "If they take me to trial, it'll be the trial of the century, in terms of world Anglicanism. And because none of us are going anywhere, they probably will have to take me to trial to remove me. And that's OK. Christians have been tried before by other Christians and God's going to be the one who ultimately sorts it all out."

To date, 11 of 38 worldwide Anglican Provinces have declared themselves to be in "impaired" or "broken communion" with ECUSA. That situation has precedent. When women were first consecrated bishops in the late 1980s, a commission was formed-similar to the one convened at Canterbury in October-to deal with the resulting conflict. Today, more than half of the Anglican Communion ordains women, although only 3 have female bishops-the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. Indeed, some level of "impaired communion" still exists in provinces that do not accept the role of women as bishops.

Yet most observers consider the present situation more serious because it deals specifically with biblical authority and sexual morality-in other words, does the Bible sanction homosexuality?

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, conservatives say that Bishop Grew is "playing hardball" by threatening sanctions if they don't fall in line behind the national church.

Grew defends his actions, saying, "Conservative clergy can't have it both ways. You're either in the church or out of the church, and if you leave, then there are canonical consequences to that. People who leave the diocese don't leave with their buildings, and they don't leave with their assets or their endowments.

"I don't want to get into lawsuits, but I also have the responsibility of protecting the assets of the diocese," he says.

Grew believes the disagreement stems from "deep-seated homophobia and an inability for (these people) to see gay and lesbian people as blessed children of God."

Duncan sees it differently. "Their lack of charity is for all the world to see. The way in which they're dealing with those of us who are orthodox, forcing us to submit, really is perfidious."

If the Episcopal Church won't provide pastoral care, one Network insider says the Network hopes to have everything in place to be able to "make the break" from ECUSA by early spring. Duncan prefers a softer approach. "We're going to keep operating as the Episcopal Church we've always known, and they're going to have to figure out what they do about that."

Many attending the alternative Thursday night service in Ohio say they're filled with hope, even if it means celebrating Christmas in a setting devoid of the regal stained glass windows, soft cushy pews and the padded kneelers to which they're accustomed.

For ECUSA, things seem to be anything but joyful, as more and more provinces continue to disassociate themselves from it, and more conservative parishioners continue to leave liberal parishes, taking their checkbooks with them. Solheim admits that giving to the national church is down "dramatically," although exact figures are not available.

One conservative Anglican website seemed to drive home the poignancy of the dilemma with this statement: "The dismissive words of our national leaders that this situation will blow over were only half-right. It's blowing up."

more from beliefnet and our partners