Akron, Ohio, March 14--Today, members of six Episcopal churches in northeast Ohio may trigger a long-feared schism in the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) by inviting bishops from outside the Ohio diocese to challenge the authority of Bishop Clark Grew II and establish a separate relationship under an alternative, conservative bishop.

The event was planned by the American Anglican Council, a group of conservative Episcopalians who have long objected to the progressive bent of the church. Officially, the six parishes are holding a joint worship service to celebrate the formation of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, the organization launched last January by the council, along with 12 conservative Episcopal bishops angered by the blessing of same-sex marriages and the consecration of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly homosexual priest, as Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson was formally installed last Sunday. Ohio's Bishop Grew was one of 62 bishops who approved Robinson's election at the church's general convention in August.

Today's ceremony, at which more than 100 adults and teenagers will be confirmed into the Episcopal church, is apparently designed to force a confrontation with the national church. It will be administered by, among other active and retired conservative bishops, Bishop Robinson Cavalcanti, Bishop of Recife, Brazil. The Rt. Rev. Maurice Benitez is expected give opening remarks that will declare the American Anglican Council's intent to establish separate "orthodox" jurisdictions, or regions. It is almost certain that one of the bishops attending will be appointed the spiritual overseer of the six churches as a rival to Bishop Grew. The presence of the outside bishops is illegal under church law and was undisclosed until today.

According to church law, visiting bishops must have the permission of the local bishop before performing any rites in a diocese other than their own. If today's ceremony goes as planned, the national church could begin proceedings to defrock the offending bishops and seize the buildings and endowments of the participating parishes. "We are prepared to fight, to go to court, to protect the things that have been put in our hands as resources," said Rev. Roger Ames, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Bath, Ohio and leader of the six parishes, known as the "Ohio cluster." The day after Robinson's election, Ames covered the word "Episcopal" on the sign outside St. Luke's.

The cluster churches say they appealed to the American Anglican Council, "the body recognized by the largest part of the Anglican Communion as having influence in this matter," for an alternate bishop. "In response to our request, and in light of this pastoral crisis, an emergency alternate bishop has been appointed for us, and we are willing to submit wholly to his spiritual oversight," says Rev. David Loomis, rector of Hudson Anglican Fellowship. Bishop Grew is reportedly aware of the six churches' discontent, but was unaware of their plans to hold Sunday's ceremony.

The Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) has offered a plan for "supplemental episcopal oversight," which ECUSA'S Frank Griswold says he will flesh out at the annual meeting of the church's bishops in Texas later this month. Rev. Ames says the churches are only seeking the "adequate episcopal oversight" promised to the Ohio dissenting churches by the Archbishop of Canterbury and 37 national leaders in the Anglican Communion at a meeting in England, last fall.

Rev. Ames says the six churches applied to the AAC for emergency oversight after seeing a preliminary draft of the ECUSA proposal for supplemental oversight and finding it unacceptable and not in keeping with the promise of oversight by the worldwide church leaders last summer.

Adequate episcopal oversight allows an alienated parish to welcome a substitute bishop if the local bishop and the parish encounter serious theological differences.

Leaders of the cluster churches say they would rather not break away from the Episcopal Church, but want to be free to follow a course of "traditional Anglicanism" by creating their own orthodox jurisdictions inside the main body of the church. "ECUSA calls us schismatic, when in reality our only goal is to remain Anglican," Rev. Loomis said. "While their only goal seems to be to walk away from everything we understand to be the traditional Anglican church."

One Ohio priest involved in the breakaway said homosexuality is only the tip of the iceberg. "There's nothing much Christian left in the old shell of the Episcopal Church of the United States. We don't want to be a church within a church. We don't want to have anything to do with them."

Ames says the Ohio cluster is prepared to face whatever consequences follow from the ceremony Sunday, though he's hopeful it won't come to defrockment proceedings, or "presentments" in the language of church law. Ames expects the events of the day will initiate "some kind of negotiated settlement" that will result in "pennies on the dollar or some reduced price purchase option," he says, and some plan that gradually switches the churches' financial contributions from ECUSA to the Network. If presentments are made, however, Ames says, "we are willing to walk away from everything."

Battles over the future of the Episcopal Church have already erupted elsewhere. In South Carolina, Bishop Edward Salmon, a supporter of the Network, has nonetheless fought to stop parishioners at All Saints Church in Pawleys Island, S.C. from breaking from the diocese and the national church. An appeals judge has ordered a trial to determine who owns the church building.

Meanwhile, an AAC insider says at least seven other "clusters of conservative churches from several other states," will be following the Ohio cluster's lead in realigning themselves with like-minded bishops in the next couple of months."

In addition to St. Lukes and the Hudson Anglican Fellowship, the other churches in the cluster of six are St. Anne's In The Field Church in Madison, Church Of The Holy Spirit in Akron, St. Barnabas Church in Bay Village, and St. Stephen's Church in East Liverpool.

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