FOR NOW, SOME CONSERVATIVES in the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church (ECUSA) have decided the best way to stay together and take a stand for biblical authority in the troubled denomination is by forming "a church within the church."
Some 100 delegates from 12 dioceses and elsewhere in ECUSA met in suburban Dallas last week and organized the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes. They unanimously approved a charter that says the network "shall operate within the constitution of the Episcopal Church" and will "constitute a true and legitimate expression of the worldwide Anglican Communion." (ECUSA is the U.S. part of the 70 million-member global body.)
The charter said recent decisions by ECUSA "have departed from the historic faith and order and have brought immense harm." In immediate view were denominational decisions last year to approve a gay priest in an open homosexual relationship as a bishop and to recognize rites for same-sex unions as acceptable. V. Gene Robinson's consecration as bishop in November shook not only much of ECUSA but also the entire Anglican Communion; leaders of the majority of the world's Anglicans condemned the action as unbiblical and expressed solidarity with ECUSA conservatives.
With church members and even some priests heading for the exits following the consecration, and with widespread unrest in the pews, conservative leaders pondered what to do to stop the hemorrhaging. Eventually, despite differences on the details, they settled on the network idea. An outright breakaway would have meant for the dissidents the loss of parish property and assets, along with clergy pensions and health insurance, and likely resulted in drawn-out, expensive litigation.
Accused of schism scheming by liberal ECUSA leaders, the conservatives shot back. They said it was the liberals who had left the church's faith and canons, causing all the commotion.
One provision in the charter is bound to result in conflict. It says all congregations joining the network, including those from liberal dioceses, will "come under the spiritual authority of a bishop" approved by network leaders. It was not immediately clear how far "spiritual authority" extends. Under ECUSA law, no bishop from outside a diocese can minister to a congregation without the local bishop's permission, and some liberal bishops vow they never will allow an outside bishop to exercise spiritual oversight in their dioceses.
However, the top leaders of the Anglican Communion instructed Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to appoint a committee to chart a way for conservatives stranded in liberal dioceses to receive "adequate Episcopal oversight" by a likeminded bishop. The committee's report is due by September.
The charter set up five geographic "convocations" for participating parishes not part of a network diocese, and a nongeographic one for traditionalists opposed to the ordination of women and use of modern prayer books.
The delegates also elected Pittsburgh bishop Robert Duncan to lead the network for the next three years. Despite differences, he told reporters, "we share a unified conviction that the gospel of Jesus Christ must not be compromised."