The constitutional crisis threatening to split the worldwide Anglican Church is likely to be reignited by a vote this week among American Episcopalians on whether to confirm the election of their first openly gay bishop. Most expect the appointment to go ahead.
The threat of a possible parting of ways was highlighted at a meeting in Virginia at the end of last week of five archbishops from Africa, Asia and Australia. Joined by conservative church activists from around the world, they warned in a statement that a yes vote would "precipitate a dramatic realignment of the church".
In June the diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay pastor, the Rev Gene Robinson, as its new bishop. The Episcopalian Church, the name taken by Anglicans in the US, must confirm the election at its annual general convention, which opens on Wednesday in Minneapolis. It must also vote on a motion to allow its pastors to conduct blessings of gay couples.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has 79 million members in 38 regional churches around the world. This weekend Dr Williams is in Ghana, where he is likely to face renewed pressure to take a position on the New Hampshire election, an issue on which he has so far remained silent.
Similar debates gripped the Church of England when Canon Jeffrey John - also gay, though celibate, unlike Mr Robinson - was appointed Bishop of Reading. Canon John decided not to take the post after meeting Dr Williams, leading to loud protests from liberal and gay activists at the General Synod in York two weeks ago.
Most observers predict that the convention in Minneapolis will go ahead and confirm Mr Robinson this week. Only then will it be clear whether member churches in the Third World, which have a reputation for a more conservative reading of the scriptures, will carry out their threat to break away.
Similar threats in the past, on the issue of allowing women pastors, for example, have come to nothing. But at the Virginia meeting the Archbishop of Nigeria, the Most Rev Peter Akinoal, said: "Let me assure you, this time things are going to be different.
"We have come to what I might describe as a crossroads, and these events are going to determine the future and fate of our communion."
Liberal church members in the US believe the conservatives are using the threat to try to influence the outcome of the Minneapolis conference. "Despite their protests to the contrary, any church-splitting would be their responsibility," said the Rev Michael Hopkins, who heads an alliance of gay Episcopalians.
But the Rev Christopher Seitz, a professor of divinity at the University of St Andrews who attended the Virginia meeting, says the crisis is serious. "The decision to move away from the historic teachings of the church is itself schismatic."
There is no sign, meanwhile, that Mr Robinson is considering following Canon John's example by withdrawing his name. "If there came a point where I felt like that's what God was calling me to do, absolutely, I would do it," he told The New York Times. "But I do not feel that that is what God is calling me to do. On the contrary, I feel that God is calling me to move deliberately forward."Reuse content