London — On the scale of global religious movements, it is only a small gathering – a few hundred bishops, clergy, and laypeople – but its significance to one of the world's biggest churches is ominous.
This weekend, about 1,000 traditional Anglicans implacably opposed to what they consider liberal leadership will descend on Jerusalem for an eight-day meeting that threatens to solidify the deep divisions, particularly over homosexuality, that have fractured the church.
Though organizers insist they are not breaking away from the 77-million strong Anglican communion, the conference throws down the gauntlet to the church's mother ship in England: Some delegates are openly calling it a "crossroads" and a "moment of decision"; others have said they will boycott the once-a-decade summit of Anglican bishops known as the Lambeth Conference, which takes place next month in Canterbury.
Even the summit's title – Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) – hints at an attempt to redefine the church and chart a new path forward. Think of it as a very strong tail trying to wag the dog.
"The objective is to think about the future of the Anglican Church," says Lawrence Dena, a Kenyan bishop, who is joining the Lambeth boycott because of the homosexuality question. "We have been handling this issue for a long time. We have already had a lot of time discussing this matter over 10 years now; so how much more time do we need?"
The Nigerian primate, Archbishop Peter Akinola, was blunter. "Now we confront a moment of decision," he wrote in a pamphlet for the conference. "If we fail to act, we risk leading millions of people away from the faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures."
"There is no longer any hope... for a unified communion," he added. "The intransigence of those who reject biblical authority continues to obstruct our mission, and it now seems that the communion is being forced to choose between following their innovations or continuing on the path that the church has followed since the time of the Apostles."
Giles Fraser, a London vicar who describes himself as from the more "progressive" wing of the church, says the conference is "an attempt to destabilize things ahead of the Lambeth Conference, an attempt to set up the beginnings of an alternative church, which they are threatening if they don't get their own way over issues like homosexuality."
A long history of disagreement
It comes as little surprise to discover that the term "broad church" was originally coined for the Anglicans. They are Christianity's third-largest communion, spread across 160 nations as a result of missionary work over the past 400 years. They occupy a wide-spanning theological and ecclesiastical bridge between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, accommodating liberals and conservatives, high-church Anglo-Catholics and low-church Calvinists, with widely differing views on liturgy, the Eucharist, vestments, social matters, and lifestyle.
As such, division and disagreement have been endemic for decades, if not centuries, over issues from slavery to the ordination of women priests.
But the decision by the US Episcopal Church to consecrate Gene Robinson, a gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 has split the communion into two implacably opposed camps, centered broadly, but not exclusively, around the liberal leadership in the English, US, and Canadian churches and the "Global South," which includes the African provinces that have been the driving force behind GAFCON.
Caught in the middle is Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is clearly struggling to reconcile the irreconcilable. He stopped short of inviting Bishop Robinson to Lambeth, but has invited those who consecrated him, triggering the boycott by bishops from Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, among others.
Matters were complicated by the revelation this week that two Anglican clergymen recently enjoyed a formal wedding blessing in an Anglican church in London, lifting the lid on the tacit "don't ask, don't tell" practice of offering church blessings to gay couples.
Archbishop Williams has taken a dim view of this, saying clergy are free to disagree with the church's teaching "but they are not at liberty simply to disregard it."
Opponents want a far clearer stance from the archbishop on the issue. "What we would long for from him is for him to be clear on which way he wants to go," says Rev. Paul Dawson of a traditionalist grouping called Reform. "Then people can make their minds up and say we agree with that, or not."
Bishop Dena says traditionalists have no problem with homosexuals in churches – as long as they are in the congregation. "What we are against is that if I admit I am an adulterer, I want to believe that my church will not accept me as a leader because adultery is sin. This is the same thing as gay."
GAFCON organizers say the argument is not about homosexuality, but about something far more important to Christians: the primacy of Scripture. The problem is that both sides are vociferously claiming Scripture in their favor.
"The commitment to Anglicanism is to Scripture and teaching, and those who are innovating these new practices are setting this aside," says Canon Chris Sugden, another of the GAFCON organizers.
But Giles Fraser counters: "It's not as if the conservatives have a monopoly on the claim to Scripture. That's why it is important that people sit down and debate this.
"It's incredibly immature of those who are staying away from Lambeth to make their point by their absence," he adds. "There have always been disagreements about how to interpret the Scripture. Ever since things have been written down, there have been disagreements on what they mean."
Breaking up would be hard
So why don't the GAFCON bishops just secede? One problem is that they are only united around the homosexuality issue. When it comes to the consecration of women bishops, another big issue looming for the church, GAFCON delegates will find it harder to agree.
Second, membership of a massive church like the Anglican communion does confer a certain stature that some would be loath to give up.
And third, secession brings with it all kinds of messy legal issues. Dozens of churches have left the US Episcopal Church in recent years to affiliate with conservatives in Africa and South America, raising questions – legal disputes even – over the status of their church property.
"It can get messy," says Mr. Dawson. "If you can avoid having to go through public legal battles then it's better to avoid it, which is why many people long to try and hold it together."