In the summer of 1992, an Episcopal priest in Baltimore officiated at the wedding of two female congregants. Though he had been "careful to obtain all the necessary permissions," it wasn't long before the Rev. William Rich found himself on the front page of the Baltimore Sun and at the center of a religious controversy. Rich was criticized by many in the community and church for performing a gay wedding ceremony, but he's never regretted the move. In a recent interview with the Diocese of New Hampshire's Bishop Search and Nomination Committee, Rich described the experience as an ultimately positive one, which "helped strengthen the gay and lesbian caucus among the clergy."
It's a good sign that Rich doesn't shy away from controversy because nearly 20 years later, he could be facing it once again. An openly gay man, Rich is one of three candidates to become New Hampshire's next Episcopal bishop. On May 19, about 200 clergy and elected delegates will cast their vote by secret ballot to choose a replacement for the current bishop, the retiring Gene Robinson, who is also gay. If a second gay man is elected to the post, the selection will likely reverberate through the staunchly conservative arms of the Anglican Communion, a global network of churches to which the Episcopalians belong. It could also widen a fissure in the network that's been forming for quite some time.
The crack in the Anglican community began to appear about nine years ago when Robinson became the first openly gay (and not celibate) man to be ordained as bishop. While many liberal Episcopalians didn't protest, a significant number of conservative followers were outraged, as were many Anglicans around the world. When Robinson, who wore a bulletproof vest to his ordination, announced his retirement in 2010, he attributed it to the strain of years of "death threats and the now worldwide controversy surrounding [the] election of me as bishop." The ordination had immediate and lasting consequences for the Anglican Communion as well: several churches severed ties with the Episcopalians, and other factions splintered off from the Communion in order to uphold what they deem the legitimate teaching of God.
All told, there are about 80 million Anglicans belonging to several dozen different churches more than half of whom reside in Africa where conservatism reigns. By comparison, the more liberal Episcopal Church in the U.S. has about only 2 million members. Unlike Roman Catholics, Anglicans do not have a papal authority. Instead, the diverse network of churches is unified through the Communion, the spiritual head of which is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Williams has lacked the authority to impose a hard line on the homosexuality issue, so he's spent much of his tenure navigating the divide between the two sides. Under his leadership, the Communion attempted to enact a moratorium in 2004 against ordaining more gay bishops in order to quell the conservative anger, but it did little to appease either side, and the Episcopalians ultimately chose to overturn it.
It doesn't look like the issue is dying down either. Last month, an ultraconservative Anglican offshoot group, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA), held a conference in London to address the gay-bishop question. In an e-mail to TIME, Peter Jensen, the general secretary of the group and the Archbishop of Sydney, said the FCA is firmly opposed to Rich's candidacy for the New Hampshire position. "Having once made an appointment, which defies both orthodox Christian teaching and the commitment of the majority of their fellow Anglicans, it would not be surprising that the Episcopal Church would continue its intransigent path," he wrote. He added that Rich's inclusion "symbolizes the growing gulf between the impoverished wisdom of the West and the revealed wisdom of God."
Unable to broker peace between the two camps, Williams has also announced his resignation, effective at the end of the year. The man who is widely thought to be his replacement the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu has previously taken a more conservative stance on homosexuality than Williams. It's impossible to know whether a change in leadership will have an impact on the issue, but it seems likely that the debate will continue. For some, that's not a huge problem. "I don't deny that there are those that have broken away," says Kenneth Kearon, the secretary general of the Communion. Yet, he adds, "diversity [of opinion] is something that we celebrate within our church."
The New Hampshire Diocese is staying above the fray it's been content to politely disagree with its detractors while simultaneously shutting them out. When asked about the potential for controversy if the diocese were to elect another gay bishop, the Rev. Adrian Robbins-Cole, president of the Standing Committee, insists that the committee only feels excitement about Rich, as well as the other two candidates, the Rev. Penelope Maud Bridges and the Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld. "What we really focus on is trying to be guided by God to elect the bishop whom we need in New Hampshire and whom we think is going to thrive and grow," Robbins-Cole says. "That's our real focus."