Will the Episcopal Church break up?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Jan. 14 2004 11:36 AM

Where Anglicans Fear To Tread

Will a schism destroy the Episcopal Church?

(Continued from Page 1)

While conservatives say that the Episcopal Church will hemorrhage members as a result of the church's liberal position on gay rights, statistics seem to tell a different story. The church has been openly, frequently, and vehemently debating homosexuality for 20 years. Yet between 1991 and 2001 (the latest available figures), the number of Episcopal communicants was up nearly 16 percent. This is because, beginning in 1994, the church added another category to reports sent each year by parishes: "others active in congregations." This means people who regularly worship, give money, and actively contribute their time, but who haven't yet officially joined the church. In 2001, that figure was almost 200,000 people. 

All of this points to an Episcopal Church that will take its punches and remain standing.

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Conservatives who really, truly want to leave the denomination will do so. But the majority of them, because of the legal and tradition-based problems associated with splitting, will stay in the church and just be unhappy. The denomination's bureaucracy, as it always seems to do, will find a way to accommodate their unhappiness, probably by allowing them to officially dissent from the national church's position. Meanwhile, liberals already in the church will congratulate themselves, and the controversy will put the Episcopal Church on the map for other liberal Christians who hadn't heard much about it before—and who might be inclined to join as a result.

So, for the next months and years, conservatives and liberals alike will pray, cry, and battle each other. They'll hold meetings and issue pronouncements. There will continue to be an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, and conservatives won't like it. There will be threats of schism, emergency summits, and more pronouncements. Still, the most likely outcome is that all of them—conservative, moderate, liberal, gay, and straight—will remain in the same church, holding the whole squirmy mess in delicate balance.

Deborah Caldwell is a senior producer for Beliefnet, an online magazine about religion and spirituality.