The Rev. Frank Wade thinks that the denomination was once filled with people like him: "old white men." It was the church of the establishment, the spiritual home of more U.S. presidents than any other denomination.
Now, the head of the church is a woman who says the Bible supports gay relationships. Many Episcopal priests believe that accepting Jesus is not the only path to salvation. And V. Gene Robinson, who lives openly with his longtime male partner, is the bishop of New Hampshire.
Episcopalians are hardly alone among mainline Protestants in their liberal turn, but they have been tested like no others for their views. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the U.S., and many Anglican leaders overseas are infuriated by Episcopal left-leaning beliefs.
Starting on Thursday in New Orleans, Episcopal bishops will take up the most direct demand yet that they reverse course: Anglican leaders want an unequivocal pledge that Episcopalians won't consecrate another gay bishop or approve official prayers for same-gender couples. If the church fails to do so by Sept. 30, their full membership in the Anglican Communion could be lost.
"I think the bishops are going to stand up and say, `Going backward is not one of our options,"' said Wade of the Washington diocese, who has led church legislative committees on liturgy and Anglican relations. "I don't think there's going to be a backing down."
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is taking the rare step of meeting privately with the bishops on the first two days of their closed-door talks. The Anglican spiritual leader faces a real danger that the communion, nearly five centuries old, could break up on his watch.
"I'm working very hard to stop that happening," he told The Daily Telegraph of London.
The 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church in the U.S. comprises only a tiny part of the world's 77 million Anglicans. But the wealthy U.S. denomination covers about one-third of the communion's budget.
Within the Episcopal Church, most parishioners either accept gay relationships or do not want to split up over homosexuality.
However, a small minority of Episcopal traditionalists are fed up with church leaders.
Three dioceses - San Joaquin, based in Fresno, California; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Quincy, Illinois - are taking steps to break away and align directly with like-minded Anglican provinces overseas.
According to the national church, 55 of its more than 7,000 parishes have either already left or voted to leave the denomination, with 11 others losing a significant number of members and clergy. Episcopal conservatives contend the losses are much higher.
Many of the breakaway parishes are not waiting to see what the bishops decide in New Orleans. They have aligned with sympathetic overseas Anglican leaders, called primates, who have ignored communion tradition that they only oversee churches within their own provinces.
Primates from the predominantly conservative provinces of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere have ordained bishops to work in the U.S., and have set up parish networks that rival the Episcopal Church on its own turf.
Litigation over who owns the properties has already started and will be expensive and messy. Episcopal buildings and other holdings in the U.S. are worth billions of dollars.
The fight is not just about the Bible and homosexuality. It is fueled by deep differences over how Scripture should be interpreted on a wide range of issues, including salvation and truth.
The decades of debate turned into open confrontation when Robinson was consecrated in 2003. A church - and global communion - that once held together Christians with diverse biblical views found itself dividing into factions, seeing little that could unite them.
"The various debates ... over my lifetime have been a fascinating study in two ships passing each other in the night," said the Rev. Peter Moore, a leading conservative thinker and retired head of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. "Neither heard a thing the other said. It was clear that both groups had made up their minds on totally different grounds, and they were not speaking the same language."
The outcome of the New Orleans meeting, which runs through Tuesday, could turn that gap into a permanent break.
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