The election last month of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire is now threatening to crack open the long-existing fault line over homosexuality in the worldwide Anglican Communion, a global association of churches in 164 countries.
In an open letter released yesterday, 24 conservative American bishops warned that they would join conservative leaders in Africa, Asia and South America and break ties with the Episcopal Church USA if it votes to confirm New Hampshire's chosen bishop, V. Gene Robinson, or if it endorses a separate resolution to create a blessing for same-sex unions. There are about 300 active and retired American bishops.
Episcopalians in the United States are set to vote on both issues at their convention in Minneapolis, which begins on July 30. Episcopal conventions are usually as brazenly political as a presidential primary, with lobbying and last-minute alliances. But this time the American bishops, priests and laypeople who will vote say the pressure on them is exceptionally intense.
Conservatives suggested in interviews that if the Americans vote yes on either Bishop-elect Robinson or same-sex blessings, traditionalists around the world may join together, form a separate communion and try to claim the mantle of true Anglicanism.
It is unclear whether an affirmative vote in Minneapolis would actually cause a permanent schism in the the Anglican Communion, or whether the conservatives are making a last-ditch effort to influence the upcoming American convention. However, both sides acknowledge that the gay issue has opened a potentially irreconcilable divide — one that also emerged recently in the church in Canada and Britain.
"Obviously, God's will for the church is unity, and the breakdown of that communion is a devastating thing," said the Most Rev. Greg Venables, one of the top church leaders, or primates, who has vowed to back a split. "But it's clear that there will be a breakdown in communion."
Bishop Venables is the presiding bishop of the Province of the Southern Cone, which includes all of South America, except Brazil.
The Anglican Communion, according to religion scholars, is the second largest international body of churches after the Roman Catholic Church, with 79 million members in 38 regional churches that trace their heritage to the Church of England.
While the conservatives on homosexuality are a minority in the church in the United States, they are a majority where the Anglican church is growing most quickly, in Africa and Asia.
At the Lambeth Conference in 1998, a once-a-decade meeting of Anglican leaders, a resounding majority endorsed a resolution declaring homosexuality to be "incompatible with scripture," but the resolution was non-binding.
Bishop-elect Robinson said in a telephone interview from New Hampshire on Thursday: "It breaks my heart if any of them choose to leave. But if they leave it's because they are choosing to leave, and they are choosing to divide this communion, not me.
"I am not willing to take responsibility for the future of the Anglican Church," he said.
The debate over homosexuality has been simmering among Episcopalians for nearly 30 years, but only recently boiled over with recent decisions in Canada and England.
The Canadian diocese of New Westminster, which covers greater Vancouver, declared in May that it would formally bless same-sex unions. In response, 16 primates in Africa, India, South America the West Indies, the Philippines and Southeast Asia severed ecclesiastical relations with the Vancouver diocese and its bishop.
In addition, nine parishes in the Vancouver area broke away from their own diocese, and said they would change their allegiance and redirect their funds to the bishop of the Yukon, who is a conservative on homosexuality.
Then, in a watershed moment on June 6, a gay man selected as a bishop in the Church of England withdrew before taking his seat.
Dr.Jeffrey John had been appointed bishop of Reading in the Oxford Diocese, where diocesan bishops are appointed by the bishop of their province, not elected as in the United States. After his selection, a newspaper revealed that Dr. John had had a long-term gay relationship. But Dr. John said that he and his partner, also a priest, had become celibates after the church in 1991 explicitly forbade priests from having gay sex.
Conservative primates from around the world argued that Dr. John was nonetheless unacceptable as a bishop, and appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, who spent six hours on a Saturday meeting privately with Dr. John. The next day, Dr. John stepped down, "in view of the damage my consecration might cause to the unity of the church," he said.
The archbishop of Canterbury, the senior bishop and titular leader of the Anglican Communion, has not spoken publicly on the American elections. And while many conservatives are looking to him to intervene, a spokesman for the Anglican Communion in London said he would not attend the convention in Minneapolis.
However, several primates from other countries are planning to go to Minneapolis to reassert the view that the only permissible sexual relationships that are between husband and wife, said Bishop Venables, who lives in Argentina.
"Nobody has consulted with us," he said. "That is the most alarming thing."
In New Hampshire, Bishop-elect Robinson said that every morning, in his screened-in porch or den, he asks during his prayers whether he should step down, like Dr. John.
"If there came a point where I felt like that's what God was calling me to do, absolutely, I would do it," he said. "But I do not feel that that is what God is calling me to do. On the contrary, I feel that God is calling me to move deliberately forward," he said. "I work very hard to make sure that the voice I hear in my head is God's and not my own ego doing a fabulous rendition of God's voice."
Mr. Robinson, who is 56, has served as canon, or assistant to the bishop, of New Hampshire, for 16 years. He was married for thirteen years, and has two daughters.
He says he underwent years of therapy, sometimes twice a week sessions, that he had hoped would "cure" him of his homosexuality. But he and his wife divorced in 1987. He says they gave back their rings in a church ceremony and agreed to share in the the raising of their daughters, now 21 and 25. A few months later, his wife remarried and he met the man who is now his partner, he said. He says he remains close with his ex-wife and his daughters.
Both opponents and supporters of Bishop-elect Robinson agreed in interviews this week that he appeared to be headed for a victory. About 200 of the bishops and delegates who will vote at the convention have agreed to wear buttons saying, "Ask Me About Gene," and to offer testimony about his worthiness. Altogether, there are about 300 bishops in the United States, but not all of them can vote on him.
The New Hampshire diocese elected him decisively on the second ballot in June. Episcopalians traditionally are loath to interfere with a diocese's choice of bishop. The only other time a bishop was rejected at general convention was in the 1870's, church officials say.
The Rev. Dr. Kendall S. Harmon, canon theologian of the diocese of South Carolina, a conservative, said, "This is the most serious crisis Anglicanism has faced since it's founding. You've never had a situation where half of the Anglican communion is threatening to be out of communion with the other half."
The practical effect, church officials said, could be that bishops refuse to meet together, to offer one another the sacraments, or to recognize one another's legitimacy at gatherings like the Lambeth Conference, which takes place every 10 years. There could be massive confusion if a rival communion arises in the United States and competes for members, resources and property.
Church liberals insist that the Episcopal Church will eventually come to accept gay bishops just as it came to accept women priests and divorcees remarrying. Three of 109 dioceses in the United States still refuse to ordain women, and in the Church of England it is still not universally accepted, which proves, according to the liberals, that Anglicans can tolerate diversity.
"I never knew that the Anglican Communion was together," said the Rev. Canon Edward W. Rodman, professor of pastoral theology and urban ministry at the Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, and an advisor to a consortium of liberal Episcopal groups. "That's one of the problems with the conservatives' rhetoric. All the provinces of the Anglican Communion are autonomous, so what is there to fracture?"
But the Very Rev. Canon David C. Anderson president of the American Anglican Council, which issued the letter from the 24 American bishops, said, "We've kept the Anglican family together through thick and through thin, and the hope is that we can continue, but realistically families come to a point where there's so much strife and stress going on that you don't know how things will work out."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company