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Last Updated: Monday, 19 June 2006, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
New model schism for Anglicans?
By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News, Columbus

Bishop Gene Robinson
Bishop Gene Robinson has defended his appointment
The US Anglican Church's ruling convention in Columbus, Ohio, is attempting a last-minute escape from the crisis over homosexuality, which threatens the whole worldwide Church with a permanent split. But what sort of schism might it be?

Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop whose ordination put the worldwide Anglican Communion into its current crisis, preached this week to a congregation of liberal delegates attending the Episcopal Church convention.

"Look at you", he exclaimed, waving at the youthful congregation gathered in front of a band of clergy dressed in rainbow coloured stoles. "This is what Heaven will be like!"

At the same time, a few miles away, another set of Episcopalians - this time traditionalists who want their bishops to be strictly heterosexual - were reciting an identical creed.

With a gesture not unlike Gene Robinson's, the Rector of St Matthew's Fr Ron Baird, surveyed his white middle-class congregation and black visitors from the conservative Anglican Church of Liberia and declared: "This is what it will be like in Heaven!"

It has been said before that if you were to gather any group of Anglicans - perhaps including both Gene Robinson and Ron Baird's congregations that night - and compare them with a group of secular humanists, you would find the Anglicans shared 95% of their beliefs and values.

What divides the Anglican Communion, and its US branch, are a tiny number of details. But they are pushing the two sides inexorably apart.

It is happening because those details spring from how you interpret the Bible, something the traditionalist majority in the wider Communion regard as central to what it is to be Anglican. They cite the ruling by the Lambeth Conference of 1998 that active homosexuality is contrary to scripture.

After Gene Robinson's ordination, the Anglican Communion sent the Episcopal Church a set of demands.

In summary they were as follows; end the blessing of same sex unions in church and the ordination of gay bishops, and say sorry (and really mean it) for ordaining Bishop Robinson. It became more or less an ultimatum - toe the line by the end of this Columbus convention, or be expelled.

Buying time

Traditionalists - including high-profile ones such as the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu - say a look at the wording of the resolutions on the table suggest that Communion's requirements are not being met.

One example that demonstrates it rather neatly is the demand by the Communion that the Americans should repent their ordination of Gene Robinson. That is, admit it was inherently wrong.

It is possible that instead of the top-to-bottom split-in-two of olden days there will be something closer to overlapping networks of Anglicans

The resolution, painfully arrived at for debate at the convention, talked only about "deep regret for the pain others have experienced". A revised version apologises for breaking ranks by deciding to ordain a gay bishop. But the regret is for the breaking of ranks, not for the act itself.

It is a sign of how the other crucial resolutions will be worded... those dealing with the demand for a moratorium on gay bishops and same-sex blessings.

Half measures - even ones fudged as elegantly as they have been - will not satisfy the traditionalist majority.

But the real calculation going on in Columbus is how small the concessions can be, while nevertheless persuading enough moderate conservatives that they are sufficient to buy the Episcopal Church some more time inside this fractious family.

It may work. The signs are that despite all the stern words from conservative Anglicans in developing countries, they may lack the resolve and the unity to create a schism by walking out of the Communion.

If and when delegates in Columbus vote for watered-down resolutions suspending same-sex blessings and the ordination of gay bishops, traditionalists are likely to declare the concessions inadequate (some are actually hoping they will be).

The Communion will look to the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for a reaction.

Nuanced outcome

But it may not come quickly. Dr Williams has a committee of four wise advisers to consult, and they may consider the Episcopal Church's failure to comply with what was demanded of it not sufficiently egregious to warrant immediate disciplinary action.

What would it consist of anyway? Not inviting the Americans to the next Lambeth Conference in 2008 perhaps. Dr Williams and his advisers may feel that such punishment would require the support of other Anglican bodies. It might have to wait until the archbishops heading the world's 38 autonomous Anglican Churches meet next February.

Ballot boxes for voting at the convention
The convention in Ohio is voting on Episcopal Church policy

It is possible that instead of exclusion for the Episcopal Church, there will be a more nuanced outcome.

The American traditionalists already breaking away to "join" Anglican churches in Africa would like to have the "Anglican franchise" removed from the Episcopal Church and given to them.

But perhaps instead they will be encouraged to evolve into a parallel Anglican entity in the United States.

Perhaps, one day, liberals, unhappy with the traditionalist restrictions elsewhere in the world, will find patronage from Episcopal bishops across the sea. In short, perhaps a brand new model of schism will emerge.

Anger and conflict

This is just my version of the speculation surrounding Anglicanism's uncertain future, but it is possible that instead of the top-to-bottom split-in-two of olden days - such as England's break from Rome in the Reformation, or the splitting off of the Methodist Church - there will be something closer to overlapping networks of Anglicans.

Hierarchies seeking discipline and order could acquire a more flattened structure as they seek to adapt to the needs of changing and diverse societies.

There are already one or two signs in the Church of England, such as the ability of a parish in one diocese to plant a church in another.

Homosexuality poses the sort of issues to a Church with a solid basis in scripture, that it would expect to need a couple of hundred years to resolve.

A looser Anglican "franchise" might keep alive the possibility of one day achieving some sort of "synthesis" in the divergent Anglican thinking on how to interpret the bible, and thereby on sexuality too.

As others have pointed out this week, the Anglican tradition of taking two extremes and trying to achieve a synthesis - successful in marrying the Church's Catholic and Protestant wings for 450 years - can sometimes result simply in angry conflict.

Anger and conflict have been apparent in the relentless flow of amendments and counter-amendments coming from the two sides in Columbus.

A visitor to the convention from the Anglican Communion recalled for delegates a long-ago ecclesiastical conference in Ireland.

The chairman, bamboozled by the deluge of conflicting demands, eventually suggested to the meeting, "would it be helpful if you were to pass the resolution... and will I not just fill in the details afterwards".

It could be one other way for Anglicans to avoid an old-fashioned schism.

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