Several Christian and Jewish denominations have been divided over issues of homosexuality, but none has come as close to schism as the global Anglican community, and its US branch, the Episcopal Church.
For three years since the US church approved the ordination of a gay bishop, the worldwide Anglican Communion has sought ways to avoid a devastating split. It has called on the church to express regret and to refrain from such steps in the future.
Next month, the church's 2006 general convention will meet and decide on a response, but parishioners in California could force its hand as early as this weekend. The Diocese of California votes Saturday to elect a new bishop and, in what some view as a provocative step, three of the seven nominees are gay or lesbian pastors living in committed relationships.
"The diocese has sent an important message to the church, that it was committed to presenting the best possible slate of qualified nominees and ... that gays and lesbians should not be excluded," says the Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, a church group advocating gay inclusion.
The Episcopal convention must approve or disapprove the choice.
Conservative groups in the US, long distressed over failure to stop the ordination of gay and lesbian priests, were outraged by the nominations, calling them an act of defiance.
"California is at risk of making a really bad situation even worse," says the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the South Carolina diocese. "A determined minority in the leadership is committed to this new theology. We are part of a worldwide family, and the vast majority not only don't embrace this theology, they don't begin to understand it."
After the 2003 convention confirmed an openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, and voted to allow dioceses to perform same-sex unions, a small group of US conservatives formed the Anglican Communion Network.
Refusing to accept the leadership of bishops who approved actions they viewed as contrary to Christian doctrine, they established close ties with Anglican leaders in developing countries, who felt similarly betrayed.
With the majority of the 77 million Anglicans now residing in the developing world, Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola became the most prominent spokesman for conservatives. The leaders warned of schism unless the US church repented and adhered to traditional teaching.
To head off a break, a 2004 Communion report proposed a course of action involving a "pilgrimage toward healing and reconciliation." Along with proposals for a new covenant among Anglicans, it rebuked the Episcopal Church and called for an apology and a commitment to moratoriums on ordaining gay bishops and rites for same-sex unions.
While the intensity of the reaction stunned some in the church, others see it as a repeat of the debate over ordination of women in the 1970s.
"We recognize [gay ordination] is a minority perspective in the Anglican Communion, but so was our position on women's ordination in 1974," says Ms. Russell. "To go back to Scripture, 'If it's of God, it will flourish,' and I would say those '70s decisions have flourished in the church." Episcopalians recently selected their 13th female bishop.
Many Episcopalians feel caught in the middle, perhaps concerned about events but prizing unity. At Church of the Good Shepherd in Brentwood, Tenn., "some members left after the 2003 convention because I disagreed with the action, and others because I didn't rant and rave about it enough," says the Rev. Randall Dunnavant. "But I'm not going to leave the church over it."
To prepare for the June meeting, a special commission has drawn up 11 resolutions designed to "maintain the highest level of communion within the Anglican Communion given the different perspectives." On the election of bishops, the resolution proposes "exercising very considerable caution" in selecting people whose "manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church." The resolution on public rites of blessing for same-sex unions calls for "not proceeding to authorize public rites ... until some broader consensus" emerges in the global body. It suggests that bishops who have already authorized such rites "heed the invitation to express regret.
Dr. Harmon calls the document "a giant fudge ... which essentially says 'We really care about the Communion, but we're going to continue doing what we want,' " though he sees small steps toward accommodation.
The Rev. Ian Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., a commission co-chair, says the aim was simply to get the convention conversation started. "We've been accused of fudging by one side and selling out by the other," he says. "People ... want to draw a line in the sand, to create a win/lose situation, but it's a more complex and dynamic process of discernment we're engaged in to be faithful to what it means to be part of a global body of Christ."
If California selects a gay or lesbian bishop, the win/lose situation looks unavoidable. If it does not, the convention will have to sort out the ambiguities.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, was far from ambiguous in a recent speech: "If there is ever to be a change in the discipline and teaching of the Anglican Communion on this matter, it should not be the decision of one Church alone."