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Episcopal and Anglican conservatives add to sense of chaos in question of homosexuality

Episcopal leaders prevent more gays from becoming bishops, while the world Anglican family is already dying by a thousand cuts.

Theological conflict over the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, is draining the Anglican Communion of its global influence.

Episcopal and Anglican conservatives who have been trying to maneuver collectively have instead been scattering in different directions, adding to a sense of chaos.

And while the number of Episcopal parishes that have broken with the national church is relatively small, observers say there's another threat that's harder to measure: that some parishioners upset by how leaders have handled the crisis are falling away from the church.

"It's turning people off," said David Hein, a religion professor at Hood College in Maryland who specializes in Episcopal and Anglican history. "They never endorsed gay marriage. They never said ordaining gay bishops was all right. They just did this as an ad hoc thing."

The 77-million-member Anglican Communion is a fellowship of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England. It is the third-largest Christian body in the world, behind the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, and is represented in the U.S. by the Episcopal Church.

After four years of emergency summits and failed talks over Robinson's consecration, Episcopal bishops are meeting here under enormous pressure to roll back their support for gays.

Anglican leaders, called primates, have set a Sept. 30 deadline for the Americans to pledge unequivocally not to consecrate another gay bishop or approve an official prayer service for same-gender couples. Episcopal bishops have dedicated their meeting here to crafting a response.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, has tried to play down the significance of the date, saying "there is no ultimatum involved." However, he took the unusual step of attending the meeting on its first two days, warning Episcopal leaders behind closed doors that they must make concessions to keep the communion together.

No one expects the Americans to completely reverse course. Many Episcopal leaders believe biblical teachings on justice and acceptance are paramount. They celebrated Robinson's election. That means that the damage already done to the communion by all sides in the conflict likely won't be repaired anytime soon.

The strain on Anglican relations with other Christians was clear at an ecumenical service in the Morial Convention Center here Thursday night with the archbishop of Canterbury and Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Catholic Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans did not attend. A spokeswoman for Hughes said he had a scheduling conflict and that Baton Rouge Catholic Bishop Robert Muench was participating in his place. But Muench sat in the audience so far back from the stage that few people knew he was there until an Episcopal leader asked him to stand up and wave.

This is no small snub. Anglicans and Catholics have been in high-level negotiations for years to rebuild ties between their churches. Those talks have been complicated not only by Robinson's election, but also by the ordination of women in Anglican provinces.

Theological conservatives aren't in much better shape.

Breakaway Episcopal parishes are joining a patchwork of separate U.S.-based networks with leadership from all over the Anglican world, including Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, where theological conservatives are the majority.

About 60 of the more than 7,000 Episcopal parishes have either split off or suffered serious membership losses, according to the national church.

At least three dioceses - Pittsburgh, Quincy, Illinois and San Joaquin in California - have taken the first steps toward breaking from the national church.

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh is convening a meeting next week called "Common Cause Partners" to unite Episcopal conservatives. But even conservatives doubt its viability.

On Monday, conservative Bishop Jeffrey N. Steenson of the Diocese of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, New Mexico, plans to announce that he's resigning and joining the Catholic Church.

"The movement is in danger of fragmenting into so many pieces," said Canon Kendall Harmon, a leading conservative thinker from the Diocese of South Carolina. "We look like American Protestantism already and we've only been essentially at this, depending on whose measuring stick you want to use, three to five years."

If Anglicanism continues on the path of slow but steady splintering, it will effectively do as much harm as a formal schism. Anglicans in Africa, who derive much of their stature from their global ties, will become just another church. The 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church, which has played such a central role in U.S. history, will also be marginalized.

"If that happens, people will say, `This wasn't much of a church anyway,"' said Ephraim Radner, an evangelical Anglican and a theology professor at Wycliffe College in Toronto. "The results will be the disappearance and dissolution of Anglicans as a whole in North America."