LONDON – Anglican leaders moved closer Monday to a permanent break with the U.S. Episcopal Church (search) over its first openly gay bishop, but the anticipated split within the U.S. denomination will evolve more slowly as conservatives create a network of like-minded dioceses and parishes.
Overseas bishops, who said they represented 50 million of the world's 77 million Anglicans, jointly announced they were in a "state of impaired communion" with the Episcopal Church, but stopped short of declaring a full schism. Episcopalians form the U.S. branch of Anglicanism.
Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the 17.5 million-member Anglican Church of Nigeria (search), the largest Anglican province outside of England, went even further in an interview on Nigeria state radio. He said he would boycott all meetings at the global level attended by the Episcopal Church.
"We can no longer claim to be in the same communion," Akinola said. "We cannot go to them and they cannot come to us. We will not share communion. ... We have come to the end of the road."
However, in the United States, the traditionalist American Anglican Council (search) has just begun collecting applications from congregations that want to be led by conservative bishops instead of their own liberal bishops.
Canon David Anderson, the council president, said he expects more than 300 congregations to apply, helping form a network of at least five dioceses.
Conservatives worry that declaring a break outright will spark legal challenges over church property. At least one lawsuit has already been filed -- in the Diocese of Pittsburgh over who owns church assets if the diocese breaks away from the national denomination.
"If anyone were to use the magic words, `We are leaving the Episcopal Church,' lawsuits could follow immediately," said the Rev. John Guernsey, a conservative and rector of All Saints Church in Woodbridge, Va.
Anglican leaders in Asia, Africa and Latin America who believe gay sex violates Scripture have been warning for months that consecrating V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire would fracture the Anglican Communion. The ceremony was held Sunday, and Robinson, who has lived openly with a male partner for 14 years, will take leadership of the diocese on March 7.
Jim Naughton, a Robinson supporter and spokesman for the Diocese of Washington, D.C., said the phrase "impaired communion" had little significance for the U.S. church or Anglicans worldwide. The communion is an association of autonomous provinces with almost no centralized authority.
"One could argue that we've been in impaired communion for 30 years with all of those provinces that don't ordain women as priests or bishops," Naughton said. "That impairment doesn't seem to have troubled anyone a great deal."
Canon Bill Atwood, general secretary of the Ekklesia Society, a Texas-based mission to evangelical Anglican bishops, said international church leaders will not announce a permanent break until a commission formed by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the communion's spiritual leader, reports next year on whether a split can be averted.
But, said Atwood, "functionally, we're not together. Functionally, the Episcopal Church has created a separation. Relationally, it's a disaster."
Akinola issued the joint statement on behalf of the evangelical primates, asking Williams to create new structures that would allow conservative dioceses worldwide to work together -- even if their national churches object -- and remain within the communion.
"The overwhelming majority of the primates of the global south cannot and will not recognize the office or ministry of Canon Gene Robinson as a bishop," Akinola's statement said.
The signers on the statement were not immediately identified, but the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a U.S. conservative who works with overseas Anglican leaders, said he believed about 18 primates endorsed it.
The leaders pledged their support for conservative Episcopalians who opposed Robinson's elevation.
Other protests Monday came from the Anglican Church of Egypt, which said it considered Robinson and those who participated in his consecration separated from the church. The Anglican Church of Uganda said it will cut ties with the New Hampshire diocese.