The question recurs throughout Christianity's history: How essential is Christian unity, and when, if ever, should denominations or congregations split over differing interpretations of scripture?
Several Protestant denominations are currently grappling with that question, none more fervently than Anglicans and their US arm, the Episcopal Church, which this week held anguished debates over the role of gays in the church. In the end, delegates at the Episcopal general convention in Columbus, Ohio, cast a vote for unity with their Anglican cousins.
But the resolution the Episcopalians endorsed may not be enough to avoid a split internally and with the worldwide church.
In a resolution Wednesday, the delegates called on church leaders to "exercise restraint by not consenting" to the consecration of gay bishops. (They had rejected a similar resolution a day earlier.) The vote was a difficult one for those who want full inclusion of gays in the church, but it still fell short of an Anglican request for a moratorium on gay bishops and on rites for blessing same-sex unions. After the vote, a number of bishops called the action discriminatory.
Those on the other side weren't satisfied either. "It looks like the [US] church wants to stay in the Anglican Communion, but only on its own terms," says the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the South Carolina diocese. The Communion is a global community of 38 autonomous national churches with roots in the Church of England.
"Being in communion with each other is way different from saying there's a set of rules and either follow them or that's it," says the Rev. Polk Van Zandt, a church rector in Selma, Ala. "The vast majority in the middle [of the US church] want to affirm our membership in the Communion and still uphold our autonomy."
Another convention vote surprised and buoyed the gathering, when the bishops elected the first woman ever as the church's top leader – the presiding bishop – for the next nine years. Yet the step was a shock for many Anglicans, since the role of women in the church remains a contentious issue. In many countries, Anglican women cannot be ordained, much less lead a church. In addition, Katharine Jefferts Schori, bishop of Nevada, is supportive of gays in church leadership.
Episcopalians have been ordaining gay and lesbian priests, saying all are welcome at God's table. Conservatives in the US church have objected, saying biblical authority must be upheld.
The resolutions approved Wednesday will now be evaluated by a group named by the Communion. Traditionalist leaders in the developing world, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, had threatened a schism unless the American church repented its approval of a gay bishop at the 2003 convention, and passed the moratorium.
In the US, traditionalist Episcopalians have formed an Anglican Communion Network (ACN) with close ties to the Africans. They have distanced themselves from the US leadership and aim to replace it.
After the vote, 14 bishops in the ACN questioned "whether this convention is misleading the rest of the Communion by giving a false perception that they intend actually to comply," according to a statement. The ACN meets in July to consider its next steps.
When Ms. Jefferts Schori's election was announced, the bishop of Fort Worth, Texas – one of three dioceses in the US church that won't ordain women – took the unprecedented step of petitioning the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, for alternative oversight from leadership outside the US.
Jefferts Schori is by all accounts an accomplished individual – a PhD oceanographer married to a mathematician, a licensed pilot, fluent in Spanish. But she faces daunting challenges.
Only Canada, New Zealand, and the US allow female bishops. The Church of England has been deadlocked over the issue.
Archbishop Williams welcomed Jefferts Schori, but said her election "will undoubtedly have an impact on the collegial life of the Anglican [church leaders]; and ... brings into focus some continuing issues in our ecumenical dialogues."
The next meeting of the 38 Anglican church leaders takes place in Tanzania next February, where this week's actions will be considered.
Anglicans have long valued their ability to achieve unity amid diversity. "Can we live together as brothers and sisters appreciating the differences, rather than one position or the other winning the day – that's the hard work," says the Rev. Ian Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, Mass.
This week also, the Presbyterian Church (USA), at its national assembly, voted to maintain the ordination standard of "fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness." Yet it gave congregations and regional bodies a new flexibility in discerning how candidates meet the standard, opening the door to possible gay ordinations. The vote came on the recommendation of a task force that spent five years considering how to maintain unity in the church, which was close to a split.