NEW YORK – Three years after confirming its first openly gay bishop, the U.S. Episcopal Church must decide whether to appease irate Anglicans by promising not to do it again — at least for now.
The choice puts a heavy burden on the Episcopal General Convention, which starts Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio: If Anglican leaders don't like the outcome of the American meeting, the world Anglican Communion could break apart.
"Whether it will end up being two camps that still sit in the same tent, or whether they will finally decide to walk in different paths, I don't know," said David Steinmetz, a Duke University expert in Christian history. "Nobody knows at this moment."
New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who lives with his longtime male partner, became an icon for gay acceptance after the 2003 General Convention, where his election was approved.
His supporters contend the Bible does not bar monogamous gay relationships; detractors hold that Scripture explicitly condemns gay sex.
Anger over Robinson's elevation has echoed throughout the 77 million-member communion, where conservative views dominate. The Episcopal Church, the U.S. arm of Anglicanism, has scrambled to calm the worldwide furor.
New York Bishop Mark Sisk, co-chairman of an Episcopal panel guiding the convention debate, believes that many bishops and parishioners have no regrets about Robinson's consecration, "but are not anxious to exacerbate a crisis."
The "hope is that something will get passed that will signal to our communion that we actually are trying to listen carefully" to overseas concerns, Sisk said.
Circumstances inside the American denomination are less dire. Conservatives are a minority within the 2.3 million-member church, which has been shaken by infighting, but remains intact.
Four predominantly conservative dioceses — Dallas, Pittsburgh, Quincy, Ill., and San Joaquin, Calif. — have withheld payments to the national church, according to Canon Robert Williams, a national Episcopal spokesman.
And several parishes have voted to leave the denomination, prompting lawsuits over church property. Williams puts the number of departing congregations at 30 out of 7,679; the American Anglican Council, a conservative advocacy group, says the figure is closer to 140.
The biggest change, however, and the largest threat according to liberals, is the formation of the Pittsburgh-based Anglican Communion Network.
The association represents 10 U.S. dioceses and more than 900 traditional parishes that oppose ordaining gays. The network remains part of the Episcopal Church for now, but has separated from Episcopal leaders and is working closely with conservative archbishops overseas.
Network leaders won't give details of their post-convention plans, but they are maneuvering over the long-term for greater status within the Anglican Communion. They could ultimately attempt to replace the Episcopal Church as the American member of the communion.
"None of us wants the communion to break up," said the Rev. Peter Moore, former dean of the conservative Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., "but we realize we're talking different languages."
While hoping for reconciliation, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, has held meetings to prepare for any negative world reaction to the Columbus assembly, which ends June 21. One concern is that the rift will become so bad that frustrated conservative churches, particularly in the developing world, will leave the communion.
The Episcopal House of Bishops, meanwhile, recently started a defense fund that will help dioceses in legal battles against parishes that want to leave and take their property with them.
The key decision before delegates is their response to the 2004 Windsor Report.
That document was written by an international panel on Anglican unity, which asked for a moratorium on electing partnered gay bishops and a temporary ban on creating official prayer services for blessing same-sex couples. The Episcopal committee co-led by Sisk crafted legislation based on these requests — but stopped short of backing a moratorium.
Instead, the committee proposed that dioceses "exercise very considerable caution" in bishop elections from now on. The panel also suggested a temporary bar on same-gender liturgies, but used wording that leaves an opening for individual priests to conduct the ceremonies informally.
Convention delegates can revise or reject the proposals.
Separately, a new leader for the Episcopal Church will be elected at the convention from a field of seven nominees. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold's nine-year term ends this year and church observers say none of the nominees would take the church in a dramatically different direction. Delegates will also vote on whether to consider reparations for black Episcopalians over the church's past support for slavery and segregation.