Conservatives Rally as Episcopal Church Faces Possible Split

A conservative movement that could split the Episcopal Church (search) opened a national rally Tuesday with prayers, heartfelt singing and sobering messages about a break with liberals.

The meeting's goal is to shape plans for Episcopalians who oppose their denomination's increasing acceptance of gay relationships. At its national convention this summer, the church confirmed the election of a gay bishop living with his partner and voted to recognize that bishops are allowing blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

"Our church has embraced schism and heresy," Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh told the 2,674 participants at the meeting, including 799 priests and 46 of the denomination's 300 bishops.

Duncan, who mentioned the temporary split the church went through during the Civil War, was just one of several speakers who delivered emotional speeches to the gathering.

The Rev. David Roseberry of Christ Church in suburban Plano said "people are confused and hurt and angry and concerned and grieved."

Canon David C. Anderson, president of the sponsoring American Anglican Council (search), said his movement welcomes people of all sexual orientations "gay and straight and ex-gay people who are committed to a biblically moral life," implying that homosexuals are expected to be celibate.

A draft version of a declaration the meeting will issue at its conclusion Thursday says the Episcopal Church is "under God's judgment," and commits participants to withholding money from the national church and dioceses that support the Minneapolis decisions.

It also calls on the archbishop of Canterbury and the 37 other leading bishops in the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. Branch, to create an undefined "new alignment for Anglicanism in North America."

Those 38 leaders will hold an emergency meeting in London next week to debate what to do about the brewing Episcopal split and a parallel spat in the Anglican Church of Canada over gay relationships.

Many U.S. conservatives want their wing of the Episcopal Church to be declared the nation's only authentic branch of Anglicanism, in effect suspending or expelling the rest of the denomination.

"I think a line has been drawn in the sand," said Sharon Sproles, a 57-year-old lay person from Daleville, Va. "I don't think we can go back now."

Tim Bollinger, a 59-year-old lay person from Granite Bay, Calif., said the church was probably beyond repair.

"I think there's already a split," he said. "It's not an official split, but there's already people going in different directions."

The proposed statement also would ask the world leaders to authorize conservative bishops to provide pastoral care in liberal dioceses -- in other words, to act as surrogate bishops for conservative congregations -- even if the resident bishop opposes such intervention.

Duncan's talk reflected the AAC's view that since the U.S. conservatives are loyal to Anglican beliefs, and it is the Episcopal Church majority that has broken away into schism.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, head of the Episcopal Church, tried to send four observers to the meeting but they were turned away. Bruce Mason, a council spokesman, said observers were not allowed at the meeting and registration was limited to those who signed the organization's statement of faith, called "A Place to Stand."

Some Episcopalians who support the Minneapolis decisions are still present, operating a hospitality suite at the same hotel where the convention is being held.

The Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, a caucus for 2,500 Episcopalians who support gay and lesbian rights in the church, said the meeting "represents a tiny but vocal minority."

"The schism is infinitely avoidable," she said, "but if it happens it will be minor. The church is smarter than that and stronger than that."

The AAC has a mailing list of 50,000 and claims to represent the majority opinion among Anglicans worldwide, though they acknowledge being a minority among U.S. Episcopalians.

Anglican council leaders plan a second meeting sometime after the London gathering and the installation of the openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson (search) of New Hampshire, set for Nov. 2.