Starting a Slow Schism

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Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams effectively pulled the trigger Tuesday on the long-anticipated departure of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church from full participation in its global brotherhood — although the bullet could take several years to reach its mark. Episcopalians are a numerically small (2.3 million) but fiscally significant part of Williams' 77 million-member Anglican Communion. The possible breaking off of the U.S. church from the Communion — and the fissioning of the American church that would likely accompany it — would probably result in mourning for a deep historical and spiritual bond, not to mention acrimonious squabbles over money and property.

Nevertheless, Williams looked at the American church's unwillingness to fully repent its election of a gay bishop in 2003, and effectively threw up his hands, declaring "whatever the presenting issue, no member Church can make significant decisions unilaterally and still expect this to make no difference to how it is regarded in the fellowship." In his lengthy "reflection," he proposed a two-tier system for the global communion. One tier would consist of "constituent churches" — full members which agree to sign a future covenant — and the other tier would include "churches in association" which would have weaker observer status with no decision-making power.

There is little doubt as to which church would be the likely first member of the second tier. Williams' proposal will probably come to be considered a key moment in the American church's transition into a different relationship with its English parent and the other 36 global Communion provinces. It has a Nixon-goes-to-China meaningfulness. The fact that Williams is a church liberal who is known to be personally progressive on gay issues underlines the seriousness of his reaction. If Williams is greasing the skids for the Episcopalians, then their slide out seems almost guaranteed.

But the timetable that he has set in motion may make many congregants even more anxious before they can achieve closure. By suggesting the drafting of as yet non-existent covenant of members in full communion — one whose language on gays would presumably be too conservative for the Episcopal Church — Williams has initiated a complex process of composition and deliberation. Even without major glitches, some church experts suggest that the process could take three years.

Given Williams' institutionally weak position within the communion (he's no Pope), it's perfectly reasonable for him to favor such a consensual process. But there is a real question as to whether some conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere will be willing to wait that long for their divorce from Episcopalianism. Several American dioceses have already requested to be put under the authority of non-Episcopal bishops from overseas.

A key phrase in Williams's text suggests that the current crisis "could mean the need for local churches to work at an ordered and mutually respectful separation between constituent and associate elements." This seems to be saying Williams can imagine conservatives separating from the Episcopalian Church and setting up a new U.S. body which would be more likely to enjoy full status with the Communion. In his statement, it is followed by a classic "on the other hand" clause that excludes that sort of two-American-churches setup.

But even William's willingness to conceive it may serve as a kind of opening bell in a race by conservatives to pull out early in happy anticipation of their own American province. Episcopalians may find out sooner rather than later what percentage of the national flock is really mad enough to seek another pasture.