Since 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated a partnered gay man as bishop of New Hampshire, there have been growing fears of a formal split within the U.S. church, or between it and the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Now, as bishops of the Episcopal Church begin a meeting in New Orleans today, concern about the future of the church and its place within the global Anglican fellowship is at center stage.
The bishops, who will meet through Tuesday, are to consider a directive from leaders of the Anglican Communion that the U.S. church stop ordaining openly gay bishops and bar blessings of same-sex couples, or risk playing a reduced role in the communion.
The Anglican leaders have asked the Episcopal Church, the American branch of Anglicanism, for an unequivocal response by Sept. 30.
In one indication of the significance of the New Orleans meeting, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who serves as spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, will attend for the first two days. Williams, who has not met with the U.S. bishops since 2003, will hold private discussions with the group, officials said.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, has tried to set a calming tone in the days before the meeting. In a video for members on the church’s Web site, she described talk of a potential schism as “excessive.” The communion has “never been without conflict,” she added. “It’s a sign that we are engaged with challenging issues … and it is necessary to our growth.”
And in a recent telephone interview, Jefferts Schori said that despite the approaching deadline, the Episcopal Church “will continue to be the church on Oct. 1 and in November and beyond.” She said she did not expect major changes in the church’s relationships within the communion as a result of the meeting.
But in interviews this week, other Episcopal leaders and observers with a range of views predicted that the bishops would not meet the Anglican demand. And that, nearly all agreed, could widen – and harden – existing divisions.
Several Episcopal dioceses are taking steps to break with the national church and place themselves under the authority of conservative Anglican bishops abroad. About 50 Episcopal parishes have done the same. And the leaders of several Anglican national or regional churches also have threatened to leave the communion.
“Some people are going to be formally distanced from the Anglican Communion after this meeting,” said the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading Episcopal conservative and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, a theological graduate school in Toronto.