SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Six conservative Episcopalian bishops opposed to the liberal drift in the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion are asking for a trial separation, a move hinting at an eventual divorce over irreconcilable differences, some analysts say.
The bishops of the dioceses for Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Texas, South Carolina, Central Florida, Springfield, Illinois, and San Joaquin, California, appealed this past week to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to be assigned somebody other than Katharine Jefferts Schori as their leader.
Conservative Episcopalians say Schori, presiding bishop-elect of the Episcopal Church, would continue to steer the church away from its traditional teachings. She backs church blessings of gay relationships and voted to confirm Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.
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The move by the bishops underscores the tension within the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church USA between its conservative and liberal clergy, a schism rooted in views on scripture and church politics concerning homosexuality.
Their appeal suggests the gap between the two sides has grown too wide to bridge.
“It’s overdue,” said Steven Randall, who resigned as an Episcopalian priest in Maryland to protest Robinson’s election. “They believe completely different things.”
The appeal coincided with the nomination of the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, who is gay, as a finalist to become bishop of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, and came as Williams proposed conservative dissenters in the U.S. church be allowed to stand apart from it as associate members.
“We’ve essentially got two different churches living in the same house,” said the Rev. Van McAlister of the San Joaquin diocese. “We’re identifying that there is a problem and it needs to be addressed.”
A few other dioceses may join the six bishops who appealed to Williams as well as many individual congregations, said Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, a group for Episcopalians at odds with the U.S. church.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” Brust said, noting there is no precedent for the bishops’ appeal.
The request is troubling but Williams has offered the U.S. church a middle ground, said Bishop William Swing for the Diocese of California.
“The Archbishop of Canterbury has asked all of us in the Anglican Communion to enter into a deliberate process over time to see what an Anglican covenant should look like,” Swing said.
There are about 77 million Anglicans worldwide, making it the third-largest communion after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. National or regional Anglican churches are autonomous, but are all in communion with the Church of England and its primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Introspection may only harden divisions, said Archbishop Robert Morse, who helped found the conservative Anglican Province of Christ the King in the late 1970s in a break with the U.S. church over scriptural and cultural issues.
“What’s happening today is an increasingly confused picture,” Morse said. “Thirty years ago, we predicted this would happen.”
The U.S. church may again be “pruning” itself, said Rev. Susan Russell of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California and president of Integrity, a group for gay Episcopalians. “Episcopalians like to think of themselves as being a broad, generous church,” she said. “We may have reached the point where some can no longer live within the tent.”