Anglicans, one of the world's largest Christian families, often say the genius of their denomination is that it embraces people of diverse views and finds its unity at the communion rail. [Editor's note: The original version of this story overstated the size of the Anglican Communion.]
That prized unity now faces the most momentous test in its history, as leaders of the Anglican Communion's 38 national and regional churches gather in London Wednesday for a two-day emergency meeting called by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.
The meeting, prompted by the threat that the church will be split over the question of homosexuality, is an unusually high-profile test of an issue that is simmering in many Christian denominations. Others, including the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches, are also torn over the issue, but their rifts have not played out on such a global and formal scale. At stake is whether splits will solidify, or be healed, within the US Episcopal Church and between it and Anglican churches worldwide.
A large part of the Anglican family is up in arms over the US Episcopal Church's approval this summer of a gay bishop, and its acceptance of same-sex unions performed by local pastors. Anglican traditionalists say the US church has betrayed biblical teaching and must be disciplined and repent.
But as a family of autonomous churches, the global body has no legal structure for disciplining a member, and the archbishop's authority rests on persuasion. Dr. Williams hopes through consultation to find a way to "preserve our respect for one another and for the bonds that unite us."
Liberalizing trends in the Western churches, however, have long distressed both Anglican leaders in the developing world and conservatives in the US and England, and a recent alliance between them has raised the stakes and the pressure.
Several archbishops in Africa - where more than half of the 75 million Anglicans live - speak vehemently of "satanic" ways that have already "shattered" the Communion. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the most populous Anglican province, is seen as the most likely leader of any global breakaway group.
In the US last week, some 2,700 conservative Episcopalians, including about 20 bishops, met in Dallas to disassociate themselves from the national body and consider formation of an "orthodox" US church. They pledged redirection of funds from church bodies, and appealed for intervention by Anglican leaders "to guide the realignment of Anglicanism in North America."
"We are seeking real censure of the Episcopal Church, sanctions that will have a bite to them and call the church to repentance - or else," says the Rev. Canon David Anderson, head of the American Anglican Council, which is spearheading the effort.
The implications could be broad, affecting not only the global body and local churches but also other denominations divided by the same issues. Ecumenical and interfaith efforts, in which the Communion has invested considerable energy, are also jeopardized. The pope warned last week of complications for the Anglican-Catholic dialogue. Muslim leaders called off a recent meeting, and only reinstated the dialogue after written assurance from Williams that the Communion's position on homosexuality had not changed.
African Anglicans worry that if the US decisions are not reversed, the stigma would intensify Christian-Muslim tensions and endanger evangelization on the continent. At the same time, the US church contributes millions of dollars to African churches and agencies.
Within the Episcopal Church itself, support for the decisions of the national convention is widespread, but some dioceses and parishes are in anguished discussions, working to sustain unity. A few dioceses - such as Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Albany, N.Y., Central Florida, and South Carolina - recently held special conventions to disassociate themselves from the national church. Dioceses whose bishops oppose the decisions are said to represent about 13 percent of the 2.3 million Episcopalians.
In Pittsburgh, Lionel Deimel, a computer consultant, charges that conservatives are "trying to stage a coup," and that their efforts to change diocesan laws on property are unconstitutional. Indeed, should the Dallas group pursue its breakaway bid, property issues could get entangled in the courts for years. After the Pittsburgh special convention, Dr. Deimel adds, each local church is having to decide whether or not to follow the diocesan lead in withholding funds. He helped organize a local petition in support of unity, and may join with others to form a national group.
All eyes are now on how the Anglican leaders will deal with the challenge. Episcopalians see the options ranging from some kind of censure of the US body, to creation of a second, non-geographic Anglican province in North America, to simply "agreeing to disagree" and let each province pursue its own cultural path.
Some Episcopal leaders say Africans have their own pastoral issues related to sexuality - such as polygamy and AIDS-related beliefs - and that provinces need to recognize one another's efforts to work out a Christian path within their own cultural context.
US conservatives had talked of a new province in which "orthodox" bishops would have oversight responsibilities across diocesan boundaries for those parishes that desire it. But they would prefer that the bishops who voted against the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the gay bishop-elect of New Hampshire, be declared the true leaders of the US church, replacing the current leadership.
Authorities on Communion history, however, say there's no authority for overruling provincial autonomy. "None of these family gatherings can tell any one of the siblings what they can or cannot do in their own context," says the Rev. Ian Douglas, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. The Episcopal Church has its own constitution, and the general convention is its highest governing authority.
Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury does have the power of invitation - he convenes the global conferences and the annual meetings of national leaders. Theoretically, he could not invite the head of the Episcopal Church, some say, and invite others in his place. It's this kind of step traditionalists may press for. At the 2001 annual meeting, two leaders proposed that if any church went beyond the limits of Anglican diversity, the Archbishop of Canterbury would put that church on notice; if it did not come into line, they could move to recognize another Anglican presence in that location. The proposal was not supported then, but could be resurrected.
African leaders met in Nairobi last month where all but the archbishop of Southern Africa agreed on a common stance for the London meeting. "If the people [in London] try to say 'We can't do it,' the global Communion will literally fracture along North-South lines," Anderson boldly predicts.