PLANO, Texas – Dissident Episcopalians upset over the consecration of a gay bishop formed an unprecedented national protest group Tuesday — a network of conservatives who pledged to work with each other and oppose church leadership.
Yet the creation of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (search) stopped short of a schism with the Episcopal Church, raising the prospect of church-by-church fights for authority and control.
"This has been, for us, a glorious and historic day," said Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan (search), who was elected to head the network.
A church spokesman countered that the movement, which can claim to represent roughly a 10th of the denomination's 2.3 million members, would be more worrisome if it had greater support.
The network's founding charter, approved unanimously by about 100 delegates from 12 dioceses and other parts of the nation, said decisions by the Episcopal Church (search) "have departed from the historic faith and order and have brought immense harm."
The group said it "shall operate in good faith within the constitution of the Episcopal Church," and it will "constitute a true and legitimate expression of the worldwide Anglican Communion."
The Anglican Communion is the global federation of churches that trace their roots back to the Church of England — the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch. The majority of overseas Anglican leaders oppose ordaining gays, but traditionalists are a minority in the United States.
Network leaders contend they're not leaving the Episcopal Church but the church left them when it began allowing gay clergy and blessings for same-sex couples. November's consecration of openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire brought the situation to a crisis point.
Robinson was traveling and could not be reached for comment, his spokesman Mike Barwell said. Daniel England, a national church spokesman, said the network "would be a lot more troubling if their numbers were stronger."
It's still unclear how the "church within a church" the network leaders created will relate to the denomination's leaders, and talk of schism was downplayed during the two-day meeting at a church in suburban Dallas. One reason is that parishes would likely be forced to surrender their properties to the denomination if they leave.
But the network's charter says that all congregations joining the group, including those from liberal dioceses, will "come under the spiritual authority of a bishop" approved by network leaders — a direct challenge to the Episcopal Church's top officials.
Under church law, no bishop from outside a diocese can minister to a congregation without the local bishop's permission.
"I don't think most Episcopalians, committed to a system centered on the authority of diocesan bishops are going to put up with that kind of behavior very long," England said. "It goes to the heart of what it means to be an Episcopal Church."
The meeting discussed writing a doctrinal platform but lacked the time to do that in Plano, and delegates acknowledged they disagree about whether women should be ordained.
Yet the network's ideology is clear: Conservative Episcopalians believe that allowing gay clergy and same-sex blessings threatens the authority of the Bible and Christian tradition.
Many others, however, favor allowing local dioceses to decide whether to recognize same-gender couples, and some insist the Bible should be interpreted to offer equal justice for all people, including homosexuals.
The network's diocesan representatives must now return home and get formal approval from local church leaders before their areas officially join the network.
The dioceses that sent delegates to Plano are based in Albany, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville and Orlando, Fla.; Peoria and Springfield, Ill.; Salina, Kan.; Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Fresno, Calif. Delegates also represented parishes in other parts of the nation.
Together, they represent churches with a combined 235,000 members, though some parishioners in those dioceses will undoubtedly oppose the new group.
The network will create five geographical districts — New England, Mid-Atlantic, Southeastern, Mid-Continental and Western — and one non-geographical district.
The group said it will consult with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the communion's spiritual leader, and overseas Anglican authorities about securing direct oversight from them — another attempt to circumvent Episcopal leaders.
Williams has named a commission to report by Sept. 30 on solutions to global divisions over the Episcopal Church's actions and a parallel dispute in Canada concerning same-sex blessings.