PLANO, Texas – Disgruntled conservatives in the Episcopal Church, upset over the consecration of an openly gay priest as New Hampshire bishop, formed a new organization Tuesday that plans to stay within the church but operate on its own and challenge the denomination's leadership.
Here's a look, in question and answer form, at the latest developments.
Q: What is the new organization?
A: The Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (search) was formed by delegates from 12 of the church's 107 dioceses, along with some individual parishes, to resist ordaining homosexuals and other changes in the church. The network says it will place parishes under its own bishops -- a direct challenge to the denomination's system of leadership.
Q: Is it a schism?
A: No. Network leaders insist they're staying within the church. One reason is that parishes would likely be forced to surrender their properties to the denomination if they leave.
Still, the formation of the group is significant. Never before have conservatives united this decisively against denominational leaders.
Q: Who runs the network?
A: Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan was elected as its moderator -- or leader. Representatives of each of the 12 dioceses will form a steering committee. Each diocese must now take formal action to decide whether to affiliate with the network.
Q: Why are traditionalists acting now?
A: The denomination has been debating homosexuality for years, but November's consecration of the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson (search) of New Hampshire, sparked a crisis in the denomination -- and in the global Anglican Communion to which Episcopalians belong.
Q: Is homosexuality the only issue?
A: Not exactly. Competing views of the Bible and church tradition underlie the debate. Conservatives say that the Bible and Christianity's moral teachings condemn homosexual acts. But many Episcopalians insist the Bible should be interpreted to offer equal justice for all people, including homosexuals. Others favor letting local dioceses decide on their own such issues as whether to allow blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Q: Didn't the Episcopalians get into disagreements years ago about the ordination of women? How many people left the church then?
A: There was ample shouting but few dropouts over the 1976 decision to allow women priests, and many Episcopalians are predicting a similar outcome of this latest dispute. But conservatives say the debate over homosexuality is different and goes to the heart of Christian moral teaching. Network members, by the way, disagree over whether women should be ordained.
Q: What is the reaction of church leaders?
A: Daniel England, the spokesman at Episcopal Church headquarters, said the network "would be a lot more troubling if their numbers were stronger." The 12 dioceses include one-tenth of the church's 2.3 million members, though some parishioners in those regions will undoubtedly oppose the new group.
Groups representing liberals and moderates fighting to maintain church unity are accusing the network of plotting "the overthrow of the Episcopal Church by extralegal means," by challenging how the denomination is governed and how it assigns its spiritual leaders.
Q: What's the flashpoint?
A: Clashes will probably occur over those conservative parishes scattered within liberal dioceses. The network will place them "under the spiritual authority" of network bishops, challenging normal Episcopal government. The end result could be church trials in which network bishops are accused of breaking canon law.
Q: Are overseas churches involved?
A: Yes, but it's unclear what their impact will be.
Many foreign Anglican leaders oppose ordaining gays, and have denounced the Episcopal Church for allowing Robinson's consecration. The U.S. network wants these men to recognize that the conservative group is the authentic U.S. branch of Anglicanism.
However, Anglican leaders have no collective authority to accept or reject a member. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of world Anglicanism, also has little governing authority -- but he can decide whether a denomination is part of the communion. He has named a commission to report by Sept. 30 on solutions to the global division over the U.S. church's actions and a dispute among Anglicans in Canada over same-sex blessings.