THE TOP LEADERS OF THE world's estimated 70 million-plus Anglicans are about to grapple with one of the most gut-wrenching questions in recent Anglican history: what to do about the wayward Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA). They will try to thrash out an answer in an emergency crisis meeting called by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for Oct. 15 and 16 at Lambeth Palace in London.
About two-thirds of the world's 38 Anglican primates (provincial heads) are expected to press for stern discipline of New YorkÐbased ECUSA, one of the provinces. They want to punish the 2.3 million-member ECUSA for approving an open gay in a homosexual relationship, Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire and for sanctioning rites for same-sex unions as "within bounds" of the church (WORLD, Aug. 16). ECUSA's bishops voted 62 to 43 to confirm Rev. Robinson's election at the denomination's general convention last month in Minneapolis. Most of the primates and ECUSA conservatives contend the actions violated church teachings and biblical doctrine.
Enthroned only seven months ago, Archbishop Williams in a September article gloomily predicted a "messy" few years ahead with "new alignments" and a "weakening of territorial jurisdiction" in the Anglican Church. In a letter to primates last month, he appealed to them not to set up an "alternative structure to the Episcopal Church."
ECUSA's actions also are having external repercussions. Archbishop Williams was due to meet on Oct. 4 for the first time with Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials in Rome, where he was bound to get an earful. Some U.S. Catholic leaders and a Catholic editor in London said ECUSA's actions may have dealt "a fatal blow" to efforts aimed at improving Anglican-Catholic relations.
At the last minute earlier this month, Muslim scholars from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the Islamic world's most authoritative centers, canceled their participation in official talks with Anglicans in New York. Anglican bishop Nazir-Ali in Pakistan said Muslim leaders had told him the church's acceptance of homosexual conduct would end Muslim-Christian dialogue. Other Anglican bishops in Africa and Asia warned that ECUSA's actions had endangered Christian work and workers in Muslim-dominated areas.
A hotseat awaits ECUSA presiding bishop Frank Griswold at the primates' meeting in London. Defending the votes-including his-in a letter to fellow primates, he said the Bible is open to differing interpretations regarding homosexuality. As for same-sex blessings, ECUSA "simply recognizes the reality of a variety of local pastoral practices, without either endorsing or condemning" them.
For ECUSA, the trip to the woodshed most certainly means an embarrassing tongue-lashing and possibly loss of voice and vote at important Anglican meetings. Some of the primates have warned that if ECUSA doesn't repent and reverse its controversial actions (an unlikely scenario), they will vote to kick ECUSA out of the worldwide Anglican Communion altogether.
The disaffected primates also will try to figure out how to care for conservative ECUSA clergy, parishes, and dioceses that have appealed to them for help. Some favor organizing them into a separate conservative Anglican province in North America in communion with Canterbury, an uncharted course fraught with legal icebergs.
Many conservative primates in the global south (Africa, Asia, and Latin America), representing the vast majority of Anglicans, have been huddling to plan strategy for the London meeting. More than a dozen African provinces already have broken communion with the diocese of New Hampshire or ECUSA itself. They complain that ECUSA and ECUSA-related funding agencies have threatened financial retaliation, an allegation some ECUSA officials deny.
Meanwhile, ECUSA is in turmoil:
Hundreds of priests and thousands of church members have signed a petition condemning the convention's action as illegitimate. Numerous churches reported some of their members had left in protest. Evangelical clergy lead many of ECUSA's largest congregations; most complained the actions in Minneapolis will severely impede evangelism and growth.
Many clergy have been holding where-do-we-go-from-here meetings in their parishes. And some conservative ECUSA bishops called special conventions of their dioceses last month to explore options for the future and to draw up recommendations for a national-strategy meeting of conservative bishops, clergy, and lay leaders next week in Dallas. More than 2,100 people from 95 of ECUSA's 103 dioceses had preregistered for the Dallas meeting by Sept. 22. They include 700 clergy-more than 10 percent of ECUSA's active ordained clergy-and scores of seminarians. Out of Dallas will come recommendations to the primates.
The Diocese of Central Florida, led by evangelical bishop John Howe, by a vote of 400 clergy and lay delegates formally repudiated ECUSA's Rev. Robinson and same-sex actions. The diocese also: voted to withhold funds to the national denomination unless a congregation specifically requests the money be sent; deleted the words "Episcopal Church" from a statement pledging unity to the See of Canterbury and the worldwide Anglican Communion; and called on the world's primates to intervene in the ECUSA mess.
Some other dioceses were taking similar steps. In a resolution calling for intervention by the primates, the traditionalist-led Diocese of Fort Worth sought recognition for conservative U.S. dioceses, bishops, clergy, and congregations as "the bona fide expression both of the Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Communion in the U.S.A." (As many as a dozen or more entire dioceses could eventually vote to secede from ECUSA, some observers say.)
The conservative Diocese of Pittsburgh was expected late last week to embrace six resolutions offered by Bishop Robert Duncan, an evangelical. The most eye-popping one would return control of church property to the parishes.
Property, pensions, and health insurance are ties that bind many parishes and clergy to ECUSA; the denomination likely would fight fiercely to retain local church property. Under the "Dennis Canon," added in 1979 to the ECUSA constitution, all parish property and assets (including bank accounts) are held in trust for the denomination through its dioceses. So far, U.S. civil courts have respected this provision, even though ECUSA may not have contributed a dime to building a particular church, and even in cases where churches were chartered prior to the founding of ECUSA.
A nationwide plan regarding "re-direction" of giving by dioceses and parishes is beginning to jell. Many clergy-including rectors (pastors) of some of ECUSA's largest and most affluent parishes-are circulating a check-off slip among their members. It provides options for giving in a manner that would withhold funds from dioceses whose bishops voted for Rev. Robinson, and from ECUSA headquarters.
ECUSA stands to take a big hit when redirection fully kicks in. By some accounts, conservative churches make up one-third of ECUSA's 7,364 congregations but account for 70 percent of ECUSA income.
At St. Timothy's in Catonsville, Md., Rev. Steven Randall denounced the ECUSA actions and said his parish would no longer send its $5,000 monthly pledge to the Maryland diocese. He also said he no longer would obey his bishop, Robert Ihloff, who voted to approve Rev. Robinson and to recognize same-sex blessings. After meeting with Bishop Ihloff, Rev. Randall resigned to organize a new church nearby. He predicted most of his parish members would join him.
"The gay issue is not the real issue," Rev. Randall told reporters. "The real issue is: Does the Bible mean what it says, or can you make it mean whatever you want?"
Meanwhile, in some predominantly conservative dioceses, another kind of backlash is building. Handfuls of liberal clergy and lay members are protesting and publicly disassociating themselves from actions and pronouncements of their bishops and diocesan leaders.
The ties that bind are stretching thin.