Outraged at their church's selection of a gay bishop, conservatives in the US Episcopal Church are formally demanding the reversal of the decision, setting the stage for a confrontation in London next week that could lead to a split in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The appeal was due to be issued yesterday by the American Anglican Council, after a three-day meeting in Dallas during which the AAC, representing the traditionalist Episcopalian wing, assailed the step as "apostasy" and "heresy" against the teachings of the church.
The issue now goes before an emergency gathering of leaders of the 77 million-strong Anglican world community, to discuss what is now an open schism among the US Episcopalians, the American arm of the Anglican community, and their counterparts in Canada.
The controversy erupted in August, after the Episcopal church confirmed Gene Robinson, who has lived with a male partner for 14 years, as the bishop-elect of New Hampshire, and recognised that its priests are performing blessing ceremonies for same sex couples.
Two months on, the dispute has brought liberals and traditionalists among 2.4 million US Episcopalians to the brink of rupture, with the conservatives summoning lawyers to advise on the division of church property and the rights of clergymen in the event of a formal schism.
Its ramifications are now stretching beyond North America, threatening the unity of the entire Anglican Communion, and casting a cloud over its relationship with the Vatican.
Last week, the Pope explicitly criticised the concept of gay bishops after a meeting in Rome with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. To underline Rome's displeasure, the Episcopalian conservatives received a message of solidarity from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of doctrinal matters at the Holy See.
In his greeting Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, expressed his "heartfelt prayers" for the conservative Episcopalians, adding that Christians shared a "unity of truth".
The dispute, which is being closely watched by Presbyterians, Methodists and other sects, now moves to a crisis summit of 38 Anglican leaders, convened by Dr Williams in London next week.
Mainstream Episcopalian leaders are confident that Dr Williams will not condemn the move, but the AAC, while acknowledging it is in a minority within the US church, believes none the less that it is supported by Anglican opinion worldwide.
That is certainly the case in Africa, and a pivotal role at the London meeting will be played by Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, home to an estimated 18 million Anglicans - almost a quarter of the worldwide community.
Although Archbishop Akinola has stopped short of aligning himself formally with the AAC, he has denounced a similar proposal (ultimately withdrawn) by the Church of England as "a Satanic attack" on the church. "I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man," he declared.
Frank Griswold, the Presiding Bishop of US Episcopalians, pleaded last week for the conservatives to "move beyond condemnation and reaction". But feelings have run so high that the AAC reportedly refused to admit four representatives sent to Dallas by Bishop Griswold to observe its deliberations.
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