For four years, the US Episcopal Church has faced rising discontent within the worldwide Anglican Communion over its stance on approving gay bishops and other issues, threatening a schism.
Those same issues could now exacerbate a split within the US church, potentially tearing apart some congregations in a denomination that historically has prided itself on "unity in diversity." Much is riding on high-level meetings in New Orleans beginning Thursday.
Many are calling it "a watershed moment," as the bishops decide how to respond to requests from global Anglican leaders for "unequivocal assurances" that they will not approve another gay bishop and won't authorize or permit blessing of same-sex unions.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori last week played down the crisis in a video for church members, saying that "talk of schism is excessive." The communion has "never been without conflict," she said. "It's a sign we are engaged in challenging issues that are necessary to our growth."
But events point to difficulties ahead. Recently, Anglican archbishops of four African countries (Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda) consecrated a number of American bishops in clear promotion of a separate Anglican structure in North America. Last week, two largely traditionalist US dioceses – Pittsburgh, and Quincy in Illinois – announced the first steps in changing their constitutions toward a possible "realignment" outside the church.
And some conservatives who have stayed within the Episcopal Church to maintain "unity in diversity" now say they're concerned about growing pressures by liberals that they go along with the "new direction" on homosexuality.
"What do you do with the hundreds of thousands of Episcopalians who say, 'I can't go there'?" asks the Rev. Russell Levenson, rector of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, the largest Episcopal church in the United States. "We have to find a way to allow both groups to live with their own convictions within the body of Christ."
Depending on the bishops' response, some foresee a "pulling apart" of many additional congregations, spurring divisive and costly battles over property.
On Thursday, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and a committee of global Anglican leaders will meet with the House of Bishops in New Orleans to discuss the crisis. Most observers expect the bishops will not make the commitments the Anglican leaders have requested, but will say instead that they alone cannot speak for the church – that the general convention involving lay people and clergy must give any official response. The convention doesn't meet again until 2009.
"Those who pushed for this response knew it would be difficult to deliver on those requests," says the Rev. Ian Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "They are hoping, I suspect, this is another line in the sand."
Episcopal leaders invited people in the pews to communicate their views to their bishops before the meeting. About one-third of dioceses submitted responses. According to the Episcopal news service, they expressed strong commitment to staying in the Communion and to maintaining unity, but differed greatly over how to respond.
(The church has been asked to accede to the requests until the Communion completes the process of drawing up an Anglican Covenant, which would define the principles of membership.)
Meanwhile, those who have rejected Episcopal leadership since 2003 don't expect the House of Bishops to change course now and are preparing to move on.
"This is an extraordinarily significant moment in the history of our church and the Communion, and indeed in the life of the whole Christian church," says Bishop Robert Duncan, conservative leader of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Immediately following the bishops' meeting, he is hosting the first gathering of Common Cause Partners, an alliance of 10 orthodox Anglican ministries in the US and Canada that could eventually form the core of a new entity.
"We want to maintain Anglicanism as practiced worldwide," he says. "The Episcopal Church was a great church with an incredible role in our society ... but it is destroying itself."
The great majority of Episcopalians, though, yearn to hold onto that historical church despite the differences. Liberals who support full inclusion of gays and lesbians have emphasized unity for years. And some people point out that the church has never authorized a rite for same-sex blessings, though some clergy do perform them in a pastoral role.
"The general convention has never authorized such rites, but people on both sides have an investment in misrepresenting how often clergy do blessings," Dr. Douglas says.
Yet Dr. Levenson, a conservative who wants to continue to be Episcopalian and Anglican, says he's baffled by what he calls a "growing liberal fundamentalism." "A decade ago, liberals wanted to find a way for everybody at the table to live together," he says. "Now that they are in the leadership, they seem to be saying you really have to come on board."
Sure, he adds, it would be easier to split, but he's convinced that isn't the answer. What guides him is Jesus' last prayer for his followers – "that they would all be one, as we are one."