Episcopal Conservatives Tackle Details of Possible Split

Angry Episcopalians (search) urged fellow church members Wednesday to stop funding the denomination, along with the dioceses and congregations that back its liberal policies, while an insurgent bishop outlined how a split in the church might shape up.

Two priests, the Rev. John Guernsey of Woodbridge, Va., and the Rev. Ruth Urban of Brandon, Miss., told a conference of about 2,700 conservatives to stop giving to the Episcopal Church because of its recent moves to become more accepting of gay relationships.

Guernsey said it's wrong to support "the overturning of apostolic teaching" and those who "depart from the historic faith." This summer at its national convention, the church confirmed the election of a gay bishop living with his partner and voted to recognize that its bishops are allowing blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

The conservatives' meeting in Dallas, organized by the American Anglican Council, is about finding ways to fight back against those decisions, with the possibility of a schism looming. About 45 of the church's 300 bishops are attending.

The meeting received a surprise greeting at the end Wednesday's sessions from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal office. He expressed "my heartfelt prayers" for the Episcopalians at the meeting and said Christians share "a unity of truth" with one another.

Four lawyers advised the meeting on the rights of clergy and congregations if a schism occurs. The advice: hire one of the rare attorneys who's an expert on church property, check laws of your state and diocese and be careful in what you say and do. Clergy were assured that vested pensions of those who've worked five years were secure.

"We pray for peace, but if there's going to be a fight, let's get ready," said Hugo Blankingship of Fairfax, Va., formerly both president of the Virginia Bar Association and chancellor of the Virginia Diocese.

Conservatives acknowledge they're in the minority in the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. But among Anglicans around the globe, they believe they are in the majority.

Next week, 38 leaders of the world's Anglican branches will gather at an emergency session in London to discuss the American situation and a similar dispute among Anglicans in Canada.

In a blunt speech greeted by loud applause and cheers, Bishop Robert Duncan (search) of Pittsburgh predicted that the Anglican primates would rebuke the U.S. denomination and bishops who backed its decisions.

Duncan said he expects the primates to set a deadline for the U.S. church to repent. But that "will be met with American arrogance," Duncan predicted, with Episcopal Church leaders taking no action.

A new network of conservative dioceses and congregations will emerge from the resulting chaos, he said.

Duncan warned that if the primates do not take decisive action in London, the result would be a wrenching split in the "whole fabric of the Anglican Communion."

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold, released a letter Wednesday that he sent to U.S. bishops saying the confirmation of gay clergyman V. Gene Robinson (search) as bishop of New Hampshire did not settle the debate in the church over homosexuality. He also expressed his wish that Episcopalians could move beyond "condemnation and reaction."

He said he did not want to speculate about the London meeting, but hoped that "whatever the outcome may be, we will be able to live it with the awareness that the church is never something we can possess and shape according to our own liking."

Anguish over the developing situation was obvious in participants' corridor comments.

The national church convention "took a vote on one of the Ten Commandments," said the Rev. Mark Seitz of Wheeling, W. Va., "and the commandment lost. I don't know how it is that we can continue to claim that we're a Christian church."

Participants also were submitting responses to a proposed draft of a declaration from the meeting. Leaders were to rewrite the document overnight for endorsement before departing Thursday.

The draft version commits supporters to stop funding Episcopal dioceses and agencies that support the convention decisions and appeals to next week's meeting to "create a new alignment for Anglicanism in North America."