The efforts of Episcopal Church leaders to bring about reconciliation within the troubled denomination suffered their biggest blow yet, as eight parishes in Virginia voted this weekend to sever ties with the church.
While the actions involved only eight of 7,200 Episcopal congregations, they showed that traditionalists in the US and Africa are intent on raising the pressure within the Anglican Communion. These pressures will likely come to a head next February, when the 38 top Communion leaders meet in Africa. Some have said the disagreement are so basic that they cannot sit down with the new US leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
As the US branch of Anglicanism, the church has been a lightning rod within the global community over its 2003 consecration of a gay bishop, with traditionalists threatening schism unless the church's convention repented its decision.
A small number of conservative US parishes had formed a network within the church – the Anglican Communion Network – to press for a return to traditional teachings. But this weekend's actions amounted to a dramatic secession involving two of the largest and most historic congregations. (One of them can say, "George Washington worshiped here.")
The Falls Church and Truro Church in the northern Virginia suburbs voted overwhelmingly to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a group connected to Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the most prominent and outspoken leader of traditionalists.
The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Communion, issued a statement after the votes clarifying that CANA was "a 'mission' of the church of Nigeria. It is not a branch of the Anglican Communion ... nor has the Archbishop of Canterbury indicated any support for its establishment."
National churches within the Communion are autonomous, and rules prohibit one national church from interfering in the affairs of another. This tradition has been strained as US conservatives developed ever closer ties with church leaders in Africa and elsewhere. One congregation in Texas recently left the Dallas diocese and put itself informally under the bishop of Peru.
Earlier this month, the 10,000-member Diocese of San Joaquin in California took the first step toward changing its constitution to sever ties with the church.
After the June election of Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori, seven dioceses petitioned Canterbury for "alternative oversight." Some oppose female leadership in the church; others say they cannot work with the new leader because she favors blessing same-sex unions and a role for gay bishops.
The Virginia actions were not unexpected. Archbishop Akinola had appointed the Rev. Martyn Minns of Truro Church a missionary bishop of Nigeria. After the vote, Bishop Minns said that "a burden is being lifted," and that the struggle was over what it meant to be a church and how to care for homosexuals.
(Akinola has supported a proposed law in Nigeria that calls for prison terms for homosexual activity, but his supporters insist he is just negotiating a difficult situation there in which Christian churches are in competition with conservative Islam.)
Bishop Peter Lee, head of the Virginia diocese, expressed deep sadness over the votes, but indicated he would seek to ensure the properties remained with the Episcopal Church. With the exception of a ruling in California, past struggles over property have generally affirmed that dioceses retain ownership.
The eight Virginia parishes represent about 8,000 of the diocese's 90,000 Episcopalians. In the US, there are 100 Episcopal dioceses with 2.4 million members.
Since Jefferts Schori's election, Episcopal leaders have held two meetings to attempt some reconciliation on the issue of oversight; conservative bishops in the network attended the first, but most did not show for the second.