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Schism on the Horizon

The Episcopal Church's general convention has aggravated relations with the larger Anglican Communion.

12:00 AM, Jul 5, 2006 • By JAMIE DEAL
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After its general convention in Columbus, Ohio, which took place from June 13 to 21, the Episcopal Church is facing trouble ahead--and perhaps schism. By electing Katharine Jefferts Schori as its first female presiding bishop, and by failing to comply with the recommendations of a committee formed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the church has angered many others in the worldwide Anglican Communion, to which it belongs. With tensions already high after the 2003 election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire, the fallout from this convention could prove disastrous.

The Episcopal Church has not faced a crisis of this magnitude since 1977, when it first allowed the ordination of women. Some Episcopalians still believe that women should not be priests, and 35 of the 38 provinces in the Anglican Communion do not ordain female bishops. Immediately after hearing that Jefferts Schori had been elected, the Diocese of Fort Worth petitioned the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to provide it with alternative oversight, and five other dioceses have since done the same. On July 3 the Washington Post estimated that five more dioceses may follow suit. It is possible that 10 percent of the Episcopal Church's 111 dioceses will reject Jefferts Schori's election. The Province of Nigeria, meanwhile, has expressed disappointment at the American church's decision, and other African provinces will likely do the same.

Besides being the first female presiding bishop, Jefferts Schori is the first female primate (bishop of a province or country) in the Anglican Church's nearly 500-year history. While some might consider this an example of America's leading the way, her election shows yet again that the tiny, 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church is quite radical when compared to the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.

It doesn't help that Jefferts Schori is theologically liberal--"with a capital L," as the Chicago Tribune put it. She not only voted to confirm Bishop Robinson, but also allowed same-sex unions as bishop of Nevada, and she stated in front of the general convention's house of deputies, "I am fully committed to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in this church." This scares conservatives who think the issue of homosexuality represents a broader crisis in the Episcopal Church. One lifelong Episcopalian, who recently moved to a more theologically traditional congregation, explained to her local New York paper: "The issue in the church is not homosexuality; the issue is the authority of Scripture. When obeying the rules becomes inconvenient, the Episcopal Church changes the rules. That's not what we believe." Another conservative, Bishop Peter Beckwith of Springfield, Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune that "Bishop Schori's obvious revisionist position on the tenets of the Christian faith is a major problem domestically and internationally."

The election therefore added controversy to an already high-stakes general convention, which had before it the difficult task of healing wounds created by Bishop Robinson's election. In October 2004, after the last general convention, the Archbishop of Canterbury created the Lambeth Commission on Communion. After much deliberation, it released the Windsor Report, recommending steps the Episcopal Church should take to repair any damage it caused the Anglican Communion in 2003. Specifically, the report recommended an expression of regret for Bishop Robinson's election and a moratorium on consecrating homosexual bishops and blessing same-sex unions.

The delegates and bishops at the general convention rejected this advice. Instead, the general convention resolved that the Episcopal Church "exercise restraint by not consenting" to the consecration of openly gay bishops--a vague statement that left both sides unhappy and those in the middle on edge. Bishop Henry Scriven of Pittsburgh complained to the Chicago Tribune, "We needed to honor the language [of the Windsor Report] and that's what we didn't get." Bishop Jefferts Schori, on the other hand, objected to language that might send the message to gays and lesbians that the Episcopal Church had shut its door on them.