The Episcopal Church—the mannerly denomination of 11 American presidents and of scores of academics and corporate titans—appears headed for implosion. Put the emphasis on the word "appears."
After two decades of debating gay rights, last summer Episcopalians elected an openly homosexual man, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire. On that August day in Minneapolis, dozens of conservatives walked out of the church's national convention, many of them wearing ashes on their foreheads as a sign of mourning. Immediately, Anglicans worldwide weighed in on the decision—including some formidable leaders. Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, condemned Robinson's election as "a Satanic attack" on the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion. (The Church of Nigeria serves 17.5 million people and ranks in size second only to the mother Church of England.) By last month, Akinola and nine other conservative bishops worldwide had publicly protested or cut official ties with the Episcopal Church over the gay bishop.
Meanwhile, American conservatives began laying plans for some sort of breakaway. The upshot is that on Jan. 19, a group of conservative Episcopal parishes and dioceses calling themselves the Network of Anglican Communion Diocese and Parishes will convene for the first time in Plano, Texas. So far, about a dozen of the church's 100 dioceses have expressed interest in joining the group.
What happens next is anyone's guess—except that whatever it is will be messy and public. Yet as bad as this situation sounds, it's entirely possible the Episcopal Church will emerge more flexible and resilient, and not necessarily crippled or diminished, from the biggest crisis gripping Anglicans since Henry VIII's break with Rome.
Why? First of all, a schism isn't likely, despite the grim predictions. Three Episcopal schisms—in 1873, 1968, and 1976—produced tiny splinter denominations with no official Anglican Communion affiliation. Today's conservatives don't want that; they want the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Communion, to allow a parallel Anglican province separate from the Episcopal Church and made up of conservative parishes, priests, and laity in North America.
Once they have that in place, they want the Network province to win recognition from the Archbishop of Canterbury as the authentic "Episcopal Church"—and push aside the current Episcopal Church as the legitimate face of Anglicanism in America. (There are 38 autonomous churches in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, including Episcopalians in the United States.)
In October, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams brought together the heads of the 38 churches for an emergency meeting. Conservatives say that during the meeting Williams encouraged them in their quest to build their network—and that he supports the idea of the parallel province. But liberals say even if Williams actually did support the parallel "Episcopal Church''—an idea they dismiss—at this point there is no legal way for him to "unrecognize" one province and replace it with a new one. The archbishop has few actual powers, his title notwithstanding. Theoretically, the Anglican Communion could draw up a legal structure that could allow for such powers—so that Williams could make this kind of organizational change—but no one seems to know exactly how that would be accomplished.
The Episcopal Church is, theologically speaking, a way station between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglicans (for these purposes the term is synonymous with Episcopalians) call this via media—an approach to morality, worship, and teaching that tries to take into consideration all sides and find a balance. What is distinctly Anglican, therefore, is not a theology, but a theological method. Anglicans treasure this idea and invoke it frequently when mired in battle—essentially, it's a foundation of the denomination. Even the most conservative Anglicans hold to via media: They are protesting and threatening schism while still trying to stay in the Anglican Communion.
Another consideration is that conservatives' anger stems from trying to place a moral code—opposition to homosexuality—onto a church that has historically allowed for fuzzy boundaries. A hallmark of Anglicanism is the ability to hold philosophies in tension—Catholic and Protestant, liberal and conservative. If you're looking for perpendicular theology, join the Southern Baptists; the Episcopalians are not your people.
Finally, it's not clear that a majority, or even a large minority, of Episcopalians are upset with the Robinson decision. Half of all Episcopalians are converts from other denominations. They chose to become Episcopalians, and presumably they like being Episcopalian. So, why would half of the denomination leave the church they purposely embraced—fuzzy theology and all—in the first place?