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Anglican leaders under pressure to prevent schism

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2007

It's a meeting where church leaders are supposed to discuss affairs, not decide them. And yet as the 38 leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion gather in Tanzania for a meeting that kicks off Wednesday, they find themselves grappling with one of the severest challenges in its history: Can it avoid a schism between traditionalist and liberal factions?

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Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has called the gathering "a difficult and important encounter."

Traditionalists, who are pressing for action, call it part of a fundamental struggle with liberalized Western Christianity. Liberals say that Anglicanism has always tolerated diverse views and there is room for all in the Communion.

Ever since the Episcopal Church failed to put a moratorium on consecrating gay bishops or blessing same-sex unions, traditionalists have argued that it has chosen to "walk apart," and that US conservatives should be seen as the true Anglicans. They want this week's meeting to decide the issue of "alternative oversight" for dioceses and parishes that do not agree with the current Episcopal leadership.

More broadly, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria and other church leaders say they have initiated steps to form an alternative ecclesiastical structure in the US. They have served notice that they will not sit down with the new Episcopal leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

"There really is a very significant battle for the soul as to whether Christianity stands where it has always stood or goes in a different direction," says Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, who leads the US traditionalist group, the Anglican Communion Network. "We are on the side that is always dominant in history though we may be a minority in Western churches."

Archbishop Williams is trying to keep the Communion together as it prepares for the Lambeth Conference of 2008, where the issues would be dealt with through consideration of a new Anglican Covenant.

The challenge is a sign that the center of gravity of global Christianity is shifting southward, where rapid growth in church membership is occurring. Nigeria has 15 million of the 77 million Anglicans in the world, and Archbishop Akinola has been willing to threaten a schism over this issue. How widespread the support is for that stance remains to be seen.

While some speculate that the church leaders, known as primates, are about evenly divided, 12 new leaders will be attending this meeting for the first time. And not all Africans agree. Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of southern Africa supports reconciliation and says other concerns, such as poverty and HIV/AIDS, should have priority.

At this week's meeting, the leaders will discuss reports on Episcopal Church actions and on requests by US traditionalists for "alternative oversight" by bishops other than the current leadership.