Five years after the Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, traditionalists are moving to create a separate and competing North American Anglican church.
On Wednesday, a network of groups from the United States and Canada will unveil a draft constitution for a unified entity that they hope will be recognized by Anglicans elsewhere in the world. They were encouraged to take this step by a group of leaders in the global Anglican Communion who say the Episcopal Church (TEC) – the US branch of Anglicanism – has abandoned traditional Christian teaching and practice.
"This has been our aim since 2004, and it's been the call of the [conservative global leaders] that it was time for the rest of the Anglican world to recognize an orthodox province here in the States," says Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, who heads the network.
The attempt to create an overlapping jurisdiction on the continent is unprecedented. The Communion is a family of Anglican churches in 38 geographical "provinces" around the world. The churches have a longstanding practice of not interfering in each other's areas.
Some see the step as a bid to eventually replace TEC as the recognized US church; others say it's a means to prevent a schism in the Communion.
The network, called the Common Cause Partnership (CCP), represents 100,000 Anglicans, only a small percentage of those in North America, and it faces challenges in building a viable entity as well as in gaining wider acceptance.
CCP includes members of parishes and dioceses who recently left the 2 million-member Episcopal Church, as well as several splinter groups that left US and Canadian churches in earlier periods.
In November, conventions in two Episcopal dioceses – Quincy in Illinois and Fort Worth in Texas – voted to leave and align themselves temporarily with the conservative archbishop of the Southern Cone, in South America. Two dioceses – San Joaquin in California, and Pittsburgh – had earlier done the same.
Bishops leading the shift say the dioceses are moving with them. Episcopal leaders say that's not the case.
"Individuals can always leave the church, but dioceses and parishes cannot," says the Rev. Charles Robertson, canon for Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. "The diocese is a constituent part of something larger."
The presiding bishop has taken steps to remove the bishops of San Joaquin and Pittsburgh from their responsibilities, and to help those parishioners who want to stay in the church reconstitute the dioceses.
Bishop Duncan says the moves against the bishops will not affect their situation: "In the Anglican Communion, a bishop is a bishop as long as he is in good standing in a provincial house of bishops. The four of us are in good standing in the Southern Cone."
But their provocative bid to form a new province does run against tradition. "This is contrary to both the traditions of the church as well as recent pronouncements of the Anglican Communion," says the Rev. Ian Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. A Communion report that laid out guidelines for both sides during the five-year-old crisis states, "We do not favor the establishment of parallel jurisdictions."
"To say we are going to have two provinces, two sets of churches in the same geographic region because of theological or political differences ... could have ramifications not just for us but for the rest of the Communion," says Canon Robertson.
The debate over homosexuality and biblical authority has long spurred talk of schism. Many provinces have "impaired" or "broken" ties with the Episcopal Church over such issues. But last summer, traditionalists held a Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem and declared that, rather than split from the Communion, they were forming an orthodox fellowship within it. They urged formation of the new province in North America.
"Paradoxically, it may seem as though this step is a division, but it is really to help us not to divide by giving us more flexibility," says Archbishop Jensen, secretary for GAFCON's leadership council. He spoke by phone as a "close observer," not officially for the council.
Having two provinces, while not ideal, would enable people around the world to relate to one or the other, or both, he says. GAFCON will consider an application from CCP for recognition as a province, an action that would fall outside the Communion's ordinary mechanisms.
Yet recognition by GAFCON might be the easy part. In trying to forge a unified body, CCP faces internal differences. A major one is that some of its groups ordain women, while others do not. In addition, not all of the splinter groups in CCP are officially recognized by the Communion.
"There's a vulnerability within the movement itself, and there has to be some hard work about genuine differences," says thr Rev. Kendall Harmon of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.
CCP leaders hope the constitutional step toward unity will encourage more US conservatives to leave TEC and join them. A few conservative leaders will be watching, says Dr. Harmon, to see how CCP pulls together and how the Communion responds.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has been silent so far on the recent developments. Top leaders of the 38 provinces hold their next scheduled meeting in February.