Episcopal Turf War

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The procession down the aisle of the Denver church would have done any Episcopal congregation proud. The grand hymn Allelujiah! Sing to Jesus! His the scepter, His the throne pealed out, and some 50 clerics approached the altar in white robes and red stoles. A circle of clergy laid hands on the head of Thaddeus Rockwell Barnum, 44, a priest from South Carolina. When Barnum arose, he was a much changed man. For one thing, he was a bishop. But not of the Episcopal Church USA, whose collar he had worn for 14 years. He was now a missionary--to the U.S.--from the Episcopal Church of Rwanda, pledged against the American church's laxity. In another part of Denver, a former colleague of Barnum's described him and three others who were similarly consecrated last week in rather unepiscopal terms: "A__h___s."

No Protestants in America are so associated with dignified consensus as Episcopalians. As church spokeswoman the Rev. Jan Nunley says wryly, "We're nice and courteous, and we do the done thing." But last week their civility was sorely tried. Thus far Barnum and a total of five other rebel bishops serve a tiny national flock: at most 8,000 believers. But by end-running the generally liberal church to ally with traditionalist archbishops in Africa and Asia, they drew accusations of schism: not only from the American body's presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, but also from the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, head of the Anglican mother church, who thundered in a letter to the foreign prelates, "How am I to regard those who act without lawful authority?"

The issues involved are familiar to most mainline churchgoers. A growing evangelical contingent among American Episcopalians fiercely opposes gay ordinations and unions, both of which the church allows to be performed at a bishop's discretion. Conservatives feel that leaders betrayed the integrity of Scripture three years ago in failing to censure firebrand bishop John Shelby Spong (now retired), who publicly disputed Jesus' unique divinity. The exodus of disaffected traditionalists exacerbated the church's drop in baptized membership from 3.6 million in 1965 to 2.3 million today.

Meanwhile, more conservative provinces in developing countries boomed. They dominated a 1998 bishops' conference that declared, by a 526-to-70 vote, that "homosexual acts are incompatible with Scripture." Says Charles Murphy, chairman of the American rebel group: "We went over the head of the present Episcopal church to the international community and cried for help." Archbishops from Rwanda and the Anglican province of Southeast Asia replied with a January 2000 consecration in Singapore of Murphy and a colleague as "missionary bishops," free of an American church they deemed "incapable of self-correction." Last week's ordination, on American soil, was a second thumb in the eye.

Griswold claims to be more sorrowful than angry. "Statistically this is a tiny piece of the church," he says, "but one is always saddened when one part of the Body of Christ says to the other, 'I have no need of you.'" To the rebels' claim that they are not schismatics but the true American representatives of global Anglican sentiment, he replies dryly, "When you have a group that breaks away...you have what is known as schism." He points out that church rules against bishops' poaching on one another's territories date back to the early councils of Christianity. As an interview ends, he remarks, "I'm off to ordain a proper bishop in Tennessee."

It is unclear how much more than that he, or even Carey, can do. Unlike the Pope in Roman Catholicism, the Archbishop of Canterbury is essentially a first among equals whose best hope may be to persuade local prelates to censure the expansionist archbishops in their regions. Will their mission flourish in the U.S. in the meantime? Murphy, who combined high church rite, charismatic fervor and evangelical conservatism to octuple the attendance at his once sleepy church on Pawleys Island, S.C., looks forward to a day "when growth like we've experienced is duplicated around the country." Some are skeptical. Noting that two of the new group's priests are women but that many others in the breakaway faction are opposed to female priests, Episcopal spokeswoman Nunley says, "Secessionism is in their DNA. I'd be surprised if it didn't express itself sooner rather than later."