It's a meeting where church leaders are supposed to discuss affairs, not decide them. And yet as the 38 leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion gather in Tanzania for a meeting that kicks off Wednesday, they find themselves grappling with one of the severest challenges in its history: Can it avoid a schism between traditionalist and liberal factions?
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has called the gathering "a difficult and important encounter."
Traditionalists, who are pressing for action, call it part of a fundamental struggle with liberalized Western Christianity. Liberals say that Anglicanism has always tolerated diverse views and there is room for all in the Communion.
Ever since the Episcopal Church failed to put a moratorium on consecrating gay bishops or blessing same-sex unions, traditionalists have argued that it has chosen to "walk apart," and that US conservatives should be seen as the true Anglicans. They want this week's meeting to decide the issue of "alternative oversight" for dioceses and parishes that do not agree with the current Episcopal leadership.
More broadly, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria and other church leaders say they have initiated steps to form an alternative ecclesiastical structure in the US. They have served notice that they will not sit down with the new Episcopal leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
"There really is a very significant battle for the soul as to whether Christianity stands where it has always stood or goes in a different direction," says Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, who leads the US traditionalist group, the Anglican Communion Network. "We are on the side that is always dominant in history though we may be a minority in Western churches."
Archbishop Williams is trying to keep the Communion together as it prepares for the Lambeth Conference of 2008, where the issues would be dealt with through consideration of a new Anglican Covenant.
The challenge is a sign that the center of gravity of global Christianity is shifting southward, where rapid growth in church membership is occurring. Nigeria has 15 million of the 77 million Anglicans in the world, and Archbishop Akinola has been willing to threaten a schism over this issue. How widespread the support is for that stance remains to be seen.
While some speculate that the church leaders, known as primates, are about evenly divided, 12 new leaders will be attending this meeting for the first time. And not all Africans agree. Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of southern Africa supports reconciliation and says other concerns, such as poverty and HIV/AIDS, should have priority.
At this week's meeting, the leaders will discuss reports on Episcopal Church actions and on requests by US traditionalists for "alternative oversight" by bishops other than the current leadership.
At their convention last June, Episcopalians voted for "restraint" in the consecration of gay bishops, which fell short of the moratorium called for by the Communion. Many in the Episcopal majority say they want to affirm their commitment to the Communion but still uphold their autonomy and meet the needs of all parishioners.
Bishop Duncan says he's looking to this meeting to produce a mechanism for providing alternative oversight to that of Bishop Jefferts Schori, either from the whole body of primates or a smaller group. And he wants the primates to call for an end to litigation in the US.
As dissident congregations have pulled out of Episcopal dioceses, the dioceses have sued to retain hold of church properties. Duncan has taken his own diocese out of the church's Province III, and is being sued by a local parish.
"Asking for alternative oversight is an interim position," says Joan Gundersen, of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh, which opposes Duncan's actions. The leadership "stated explicitly in a document that they want a constitutional convention facilitated by the primates that would allow them to become the new Anglican franchise in the US."
The Episcopal Church has "moved outside its own theological boundaries," Duncan says. He charges that the church does not trust the authority of scripture, "which is clear about God's purposes in creation of man and woman," and is disregarding "the uniqueness of Jesus Christ ... as the only way to the Father."
Jefferts Schori has been criticized for supporting gay leadership and for statements saying Jesus is unique for Christians, but that God may also act in other ways.
"The theology espoused by the presiding bishop is absolutely consistent with the creeds," says the Rev. Ian Douglas, of Episcopal Divinity School. "People are using scripture in a dangerous way – it is a living document and not something to be used as a proof text or a club."
After African leaders said they wouldn't sit with Jefferts Schori and requested other US bishops be invited, Dr. Williams asked Duncan and two others to come Tanzania to speak to primates in a session before their meeting.
Bishop Christopher Epting, head of the Episcopal Ecumenical and Interfaith office, will discuss how the crisis has affected ties with other religious groups.
"While the issues of homosexuality are of concern to our ecumenical partners, no one has broken off dialogues with us, and their real concern is that the Communion hang together," he says. "They're concerned that things not deconstruct before we have the opportunity to work through the new covenant."
The Anglican Covenant, now under development, will articulate more explicitly the principles that hold the Communion together. National churches – which are autonomous – would commit to the principles in order to be part of the Communion. Currently, churches need only have ties with Canterbury to be members.
The question is whether the process will unfold. Akinola has threatened not to show up at the Lambeth Conference unless the controversies are resolved.