Twenty Episcopal bishops at odds over homosexual clergy will attempt to reconcile their differences next month, but church conservatives say the meeting's real business is to start discussions on how to divide their assets in the event of a split.
If differences between Episcopal liberals and conservatives are quickly determined to be "irreconcilable," says retired Diocese of Florida Bishop Stephen Jecko, the discussion will switch to engineering a breakup without running up millions of dollars in lawsuits.
The Los Angeles gathering would be the first admission of schism by the 2.2-million-member denomination.
"It'll be who gets the money and who gets the kids," Bishop Jecko said. "I hope it will be an amicable divorce. ... Those of us on the [theologically] orthodox side have no interest in going to court."
The July 18-22 meeting is billed officially as a continuation of a March bishops' meeting that placed a one-year moratorium on consecrating all U.S. bishops until the 2006 Episcopal General Convention in Columbus, Ohio.
That action came after a majority of the 70-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion have broken ties in some fashion with the Episcopal Church because of its 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the denomination's first openly homosexual bishop.
The meeting's agenda, crafted by D.C. Bishop John B. Chane, was under wraps until a few days ago when David Virtue reported in the Living Church, an Episcopal weekly, that assets would be on the table in Los Angeles.
The denomination's New York headquarters alone has $300 million in assets, with billions more in about 7,220 parishes across the country.
Bishop Jon Bruno and his Los Angeles diocese, which is host to the meeting, quickly moved to counteract the story.
"It's just a meeting among bishops of different ideologies who just want to get together and discuss things among themselves," spokeswoman Janet Kawamoto said. "Everything else is pretty much not public. They are working together, and they don't think it's necessary to publicize any of it."
Jim Naughton, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said bishops "just want to see if they can figure out what everyone needs to stay in this together. There may be no satisfying of some folks. I don't think anyone in particular wants lawsuits."
Except in a few parts of the country, conservatives "aren't a critical mass," he said.
The Washington diocese has few conservative parishes, but the largest two parishes in the Diocese of Virginia are conservative congregations sitting on historic sites.
The Falls Church, Episcopal and Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax are not expected to give up their respective $17 million and $10 million in assets without a fight.
"I'd be surprised if that kind of stuff isn't discussed," said Jim Dela, spokesman for another participant, Southwest Florida Bishop John B. Lipscomb.
Any decisions about assets made by the ad hoc group of 10 conservative and 10 liberal prelates invited to the gathering would be unofficial, he added.
Other attending bishops will include Ohio Bishop Mark Hollingsworth Jr. and Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan.
Bishop Duncan is the moderator of the Anglican Communion Network (ACN), a conservative group of nine dioceses and 200,000 laity representing about one-tenth of the Episcopal Church that opposed the Robinson consecration.
At stake are millions of dollars worth of real estate, not to mention stained glass, pews, gold and silver goblets for Holy Communion and other property.
Canon law rules that a congregation that departs from the Episcopal Church must leave its property and assets behind. However, several dioceses are contesting this law in civil court. Three such parishes trying to leave the Diocese of Los Angeles have their cases in Orange County Superior Court.
Wicks Stephens, the ACN's legal adviser, said more court battles are planned.
"A strong team of clergy, laity and lawyers are seeking to prepare for the times ahead," he said, if some sort of advance settlement is not worked out.
"I'd hope sanity would prevail as lawsuits are not the best way to resolve church conflicts."