The Rev. Frank Wade, a veteran of the brawling theological debates in the Episcopal Church, said the denomination was once filled with people like him: “old white men.” It was the church of the establishment, the spiritual home of more U.S. presidents than any other denomination.
Now, the head of the church is a woman who says the Bible supports homosexual relationships. Many Episcopal priests believe that accepting Jesus isn’t the only path to salvation. And V. Gene Robinson, who lives openly with his longtime male partner, is the bishop of New Hampshire.
Episcopalians are hardly alone among mainline Protestants in their liberal turn, but they have been tested like no others for their views. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the U.S., and many Anglican leaders overseas are infuriated by Episcopal left-leaning beliefs.
Starting today in New Orleans, Episcopal bishops will take up the most direct demand yet that they reverse course: Anglican leaders want an unequivocal pledge that Episcopalians won’t consecrate another homosexual bishop or approve official prayers for same-sex couples. If the church fails to do so by Sept. 30, their full membership in the Anglican Communion could be lost.
“I think the bishops are going to stand up and say, ‘Going backward is not one of our options,’ ” said Mr. Wade of the Washington Diocese, who has led church legislative committees on liturgy and Anglican relations.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is taking the rare step of meeting privately with the bishops on the first two days of their closed-door talks. The Anglican spiritual leader faces a real danger that the communion, nearly five centuries old, could break up on his watch.
The 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church is a tiny part of the world’s 77 million Anglicans. But the wealthy U.S. denomination covers about one-third of the communion’s budget.
Within the Episcopal Church, most parishioners either accept same-sex relationships or don’t want to split up over homosexuality.
However, a small minority of Episcopal traditionalists are fed up with church leaders. Three dioceses — San Joaquin, Calif.; Pittsburgh; and Quincy, Ill. — are taking steps to break away and align with like-minded Anglican provinces overseas.
According to the national church, 55 of its more than 7,000 parishes have either left or voted to leave the denomination, with 11 others losing members and clergy.
Many of the breakaway parishes aren’t waiting to see what the bishops decide in New Orleans. They have aligned with sympathetic overseas Anglican leaders, called primates, who have ignored communion tradition that they only oversee churches within their own provinces.
Primates from the predominantly conservative provinces of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere have ordained bishops to work in the U.S. and have set up parish networks that rival the Episcopal Church on its own turf.