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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 September 2007, 05:53 GMT 06:53 UK
Threat of Anglican schism still looms
By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News


The ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson (L)
The consecration of Gene Robinson led to a global dispute in the church
Bishops of the Episcopal Church in the United States have bowed to pressure and taken what they call "sacrificial action" over their approach to homosexuality, in order to remain fully part of the Anglican Communion.

But while Episcopalians have been debating the issue a cuckoo has hatched in their nest, and shows every sign of wanting to displace them as the official Anglican Church in America.

All Saints' in Woodbridge, Virginia, will never see a service like it again.

It was conducted last Sunday in a clearing in the woods at the end of a winding path, and concluded with frenzied digging in dusty soil with a dozen heavy shovels.

This traditionalist congregation - one of 20 to leave the Episcopal Church for the Church of Uganda - was breaking the ground on the site of its ambitious new building.

Uncertain future

Although they have raised more than $2m (1m) to develop the 28-acre site, they will eventually need twice that sum. It is a triumph of hope over uncertainty.

In that respect All Saints' move from its smart modern building in Woodbridge, to its new site next to a shopping mall just off the Interstate 95 is a model for the journey the wider conservative Anglican community in America is making - taking the Episcopal Church into an uncertain future.

The traditionalists claim to number some 200 parishes with more planning to join them, but they represent a tiny proportion of the Episcopal Church.

Most are likely to have to find new church buildings to meet in, and money to pay their clergy.

But they do have the backing of large swathes of the Anglican Communion, especially the conservative African Churches which have been trying to expel the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion since its ordination four years ago of the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson.

In February the leaders of the world's 38 independent Anglican Churches met in Tanzania and told the Episcopal Church it would have to promise not to ordain any more gay bishops or authorise the blessing of same-sex relationships in church services.

They also demanded an autonomous new church-body with its own presiding chief cleric as a home for traditionalists in America. They set a deadline of the end of September.

In what was reported to be a tense six-day meeting of Episcopal bishops in New Orleans they got at least part of what they wanted.

Katherine Jefferts-Schori
We deplore incursions into our jurisdictions by uninvited bishops and call for them to end
Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori

After a plea for compromise from the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the bishops agreed to modify their policy towards homosexuality pretty much as requested.

Perhaps they hoped to isolate their harshest conservative critics in the Communion.

Perhaps they reasoned that they were merely confirming a resolution already made by the Church's ruling General Convention.

But there was no agreement to a new self-governing home for breakaway traditionalists.

Instead there was a waspish complaint from the presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schori:

"We deplore incursions into our jurisdictions by uninvited bishops and call for them to end," she said.

Splinter groups

But the damage may already have been done.

Seventeen bishops have already been ordained by a variety of African churches to lead splinter groups in the United States, and there are more on the way.

Rwanda has almost as many bishops in America as it does at home.

Martyn Minns (L) of the breakaway Convocation of Anglicans embraces the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Nigeria Peter Jasper Akinola
Seventeen bishops have been ordained by African churches

And there is gathering momentum to unite into an independent new church and compete for recognition as the authentic voice of Anglicanism in the United States.

John Guernsey, ordained a bishop earlier this month in Uganda, presides over All Saints, and 32 other parishes.

He says a united traditionalist Anglican Church cannot come soon enough, and looks to their meeting in Pittsburgh to take a big step towards establishing it.

"Clearly we want to be fully unified as a biblical, missionary, Anglicanism that is one", he says.

"We certainly hope that the Anglican Communion will give recognition and standing to those who are holding to the teaching of the Communion here in America."

What's happening here in America is a warning to other churches that abandon orthodox Anglicanism
Bishop John Guernsey

If traditionalists succeed in creating such a cuckoo in the American nest, it will not just represent a parallel Anglican Church in the United States.

It could also sow the seeds of an alternative Communion, able to attract disgruntled conservative Anglicans from all over the world.

It would also set a powerful precedent for other divided Anglican Churches, including the Church of England.

If it works, how long might it be before an African archbishop ordains a bishop to minister to disenchanted traditionalists in England?

And this "alternative communion" would not look to England and the Archbishop of Canterbury for its focus and authority.

Inclusive

A few miles north of Woodbridge, in Washington DC, St Thomas' Episcopal Church was also celebrating Holy Communion.

St Thomas' believes that including all people in full membership of the church is the real message of the Bible.

Jesus says a lot about being inclusive, but as far as I know, Jesus never... never talked about homosexuality
Timothy Mahoney

Sixty per cent of the congregation is gay. It includes couples such as David Jolliffe and Timothy Mahoney, who have adopted a son and are bringing him up as an Episcopalian.

"If you look at the Bible, Jesus says a lot about being inclusive, but as far as I know, Jesus never... never talked about homosexuality," Mr Mahoney says.

He says being a member of the Anglican Communion is important to him, but adds "I'll go on being a member of the Episcopal Church whether or not it's part of the Communion".

The concessions made by Episcopal bishops in New Orleans seem to make an early exit from the Communion less likely.

But they may soon have to share their territory with another church, small perhaps, and even initially odd in its appearance, but one that is likely to be recognised as authentically Anglican by influential and populous conservative churches in Africa and elsewhere.

Nurtured from afar, this cuckoo in the American nest may have an effect beyond its modest size.

Bishop John Guernsey put it this way: "What's happening here in America is a warning to other churches that abandon orthodox Anglicanism... what's happened here could happen anywhere."



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