The approval of an openly gay bishop six months ago has brought unprecedented disruption to the US Episcopal Church, its worldwide Anglican community, and its ties with other denominations.
In a move that will be closely watched by other denominations deeply divided over homosexuality, conservative Episcopalians this week formed the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, which they hope will eventually replace the church as the authentic representative of the faith in the US.
Rather than split from the Episcopal church, which they say has broken with traditional Christianity, they are forming a "church within the church." An official split would probably require giving up their properties to the denomination.
"We're acutely conscious that this has never happened before," says the Rev. Kendall Harmon, of the Diocese of South Carolina. "We're trying to create structures where we can encourage and protect each other, and it's up to the international [Anglican] Communion to adjudicate this."
The group met this week in Plano, Texas, to adopt an organizational charter and elect leaders. It is relatively small - 12 dioceses that represent about 10 percent of Episcopalians. But it is vigorously backed by Anglican leaders in the developing world, where the majority of the denomination of 75 million now live.
After a meeting with Anglican leaders last fall designed to calm the crisis, the Archbishop of Canterbury supported the idea of a network to provide "alternative episcopal oversight" for orthodox believers in the US who say they can no longer accept leadership from liberal bishops. But US conservatives rejected the plan for implementing that oversight that was developed by the Episcopal leadership.
African and Asian leaders had threatened a schism if no action were taken against the US leadership. But the body of autonomous churches and provinces tied historically to the Church of England has no formal structure for disciplining members.
To stave off a split, the archbishop created a commission which is to propose a solution by Sept. 30.
Still, Anglican leaders in several regions have already declared "impaired" or broken relationships with the US church. The South East Asia province said that if the US church "refuses to repent, we will commit ourselves to work ... for the realignment of the Anglican Communion."
The church in Uganda said no Episcopal representatives would be welcome this month at the installation of its new archbishop.
Frayed interfaith ties
Ecumenical ties of the Episcopal Church are also fraying. "Clearly, there are indications from both the Catholic and some Orthodox churches that this has caused a new wrinkle, with ecumenical and interfaith implications," says the Rev. Ian Douglas, of Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, Mass., who has long played a role in the church's global interaction.
The Roman Catholic church warned of damage to ongoing ecumenical talks, and the Russian Orthodox Church declared a complete break in ties, including joint humanitarian activities.
According to Dr. Harmon, preliminary ecumenical talks with the network have already started behind the scenes.
At the same time, conservatives in England have been emboldened, and there were reports last week of efforts to press for a similar special oversight relationship there for dioceses that object to the consecration of women bishops. The Church of England allowed women priests only in 1992 - causing an exodus of some clergy to the Catholic church - and it will discuss the issue of women bishops in a synod next month.
But in the US, the reality remains that a majority of bishops and clergy support decisions made last summer, when the bishops voted 62 to 43 in favor of V. Gene Robinson. "That action was not just the West stepping out on its own, but the result of a long period of reflection and conversation over Jesus' ministry," says the Rev. Jon Strand of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Natick, Mass. "Sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us to places that appear to be division and invites us to reflect more deeply on our understanding of the breadth of God's love."
He's found a relatively positive reception to the decision in his parish. "It will take time for the Communion to work through this," he adds. "My concern is the temptation to schism, which is the great heresy, when we stop praying and talking together."
Network members, however, hope to win active participation of more dioceses and parishes. They claim some are waiting to see how efforts proceed.
But a network strategy memo leaked to The Washington Post last week could give pause to some clergy. Along with the "ultimate goal" to replace the US church, the memo proposed possible widespread disobedience to church law if negotiated settlements over property could not be reached.
Episcopalians, who have long valued their ability to embrace diversity, are struggling over the issue in many parishes, but often the great desire is to maintain unity and focus energies on the basic mission of the church.
A few groups have formed to try to prevent their conservative dioceses from taking such steps. Groups called Via Media (middle way in Latin) have developed in conservative strongholds such as Albany, N.Y., Fort Worth, Texas, and Pittsburgh, home of network leader Bishop Robert Duncan. They hope to see a national unity effort develop.