Amid the shifting climate for gay rights in North America, the Episcopal Church faces landmark decisions that could have a deep effect on its global faith community.
At their national convention, which begins Wednesday in Minneapolis, Episcopalians will decide whether to take the long-debated steps of blessing same-sex unions and approving openly gay clergy. Their choices threaten to split the US church and the worldwide Anglican Communion to which it belongs, as some leaders insist they would not accept such a change.
Most mainline Protestant churches have struggled with these questions for several years, with little resolution. The Episcopal Church has been more welcoming of gays than many faith communities, and some priests and bishops have quietly gone ahead to bless unions and ordain gay clergy. In June, the diocese of New Hampshire voted an openly gay man their next bishop.
But these steps have stirred turmoil across the Communion, which has 75 million members in 164 countries. Some bishops in the developing world - where great growth in the religion is occurring - have joined with US conservatives to oppose legitimizing such actions. Last week these leaders warned that if approved, the actions would "precipitate a dramatic realignment of the Church."
As the denomination has struggled with the issues, individual churches have faced difficult decisions. For example:
• Trinity Church in Boston, a high-profile congregation in the country's biggest Episcopal diocese, has an active gay community but has not blessed unions.
"It isn't easy to say we'll be fine here in our progressive bubble and wave goodbye to the rest of our historic community," says David Trueblood, Trinity spokesman. "On the one hand is the question of unity, and on the other, of leadership on what a lot of people see as the leading civil rights issue of our day."
• Church of Our Savior in Arlington, Mass., six years ago took the bold step of choosing a female pastor who was "out" and in a committed partnership.
"They chose me, but one- quarter of the congregation left," says the Rev. Linda Privitera. "We had a lot of work to do together." Today the church is growing and very diverse, from elders to young families with small children.
At the last Episcopal general convention in 2000, the proposal for a rite that would bless "life-long committed relationships" outside marriage was barely defeated. Many thus expect it to pass this time. But a major concern is that the church hasn't yet sorted out the theological questions behind the change.
"If the church is to do this, we have to modify our central teaching ... to either fundamentally change the Christian doctrine of marriage, or we have to come up with a new category. That work hasn't been done," says the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the South Carolina diocese. In fact, after the 2000 convention, the bishops' theology committee was asked to tackle the task, and its recent report confirmed that no consensus yet exists on the theological issues. The committee, with members on both sides, called for "focused conversation ... and an openness to the guidance and movement of the Holy Spirit."
Those in favor of the proposal see it, Ms. Privitera says, as finally acting on the church's 1976 statement that "homosexual persons as the children of God have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, pastoral care and concern of the Church." But some on the other side call the proposal "an end run" around the debate.
Those wanting to postpone any changes got a jolt, however, with last month's decisive election of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson to serve as the next bishop of the New Hampshire diocese. Canon Robinson, who lives with a gay partner, has served 16 years as the bishop's assistant. The convention must vote to confirm the choice. Approval is expected, but not certain.
Dr. Harmon, who is in the international group opposing the changes, says support for Robinson would be greater if the church had solved the theological issue. "It's important to remember you're electing a bishop not just for one diocese, but a bishop for the church."
While conservatives are a minority in the US church, they are a majority in the global Communion, and voted at the 1998 Lambeth Conference to reaffirm that homosexuality was not compatible with Scripture.
In another case last month, a gay priest in the Church of England was appointed (not elected) bishop in the Oxford diocese. It created such a storm in the United Kingdom and elsewhere that he withdrew for the sake "of the unity of the church."
Some African leaders - led by prominent Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the Communion's largest province - have publicly severed ties with a diocese in western Canada that last year voted to permit same-sex unions.
Archbishop Akinola is a leader of the group that met last week in Virginia to declare that action either to establish the rite or to approve Robinson's selection would result in "an extraordinary meeting" of the global group to act on a response.
The Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, has worked to shore up unity. Yet he says cultural context is a crucial reality, with churches in Canada, Britain, and the US living amid an open societal discussion on gay rights that other societies don't yet confront.
"I have continually reminded our church ... that what we do locally has ramifications both positive and negative in other parts of the world," he said in a letter last week. "At the same time, I am mindful that each of us has to interpret the gospel in our own context and within the particular reality of our own Province."
Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, may confront the greatest challenge. While he has no authority over Anglican churches in other countries, he is leader of the Communion. If the US church acts, and conservatives mount a challenge, all eyes will turn to him.
Dr. Williams's own appointment as archbishop last year was roundly criticized because of his known sympathy for the gay cause. But he promised then not to impose his views on the Communion. As the atmosphere heated up last week, he urged others to deeply consider "what it means to be a Communion."