NEW YORK – Theological conservatives upset by liberal views of U.S. Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans formed a rival North American province Wednesday, in a long-developing rift over the Bible that erupted when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop.
The announcement represents a new challenge to the already splintering, 77-million-member world Anglican fellowship and the authority of its spiritual leader,Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
The new North American Anglican province includes four breakaway Episcopal dioceses, many individual parishes in the U.S. and Canada, and splinter groups that left the Anglican family years, or in one case, more than a century ago.
Its status within the Anglican Communion is unclear. It is unprecedented for a new Anglican national province to be created where two such national churchesalready exist. But traditionalists say the new group represents the true historic tradition of Anglican Christianity and is vital to counter what they consider policies that violate Scripture.
Bishop Robert Duncan, who leads the breakaway Diocese of Pittsburgh, is the proposed new leader of the new North American province, which says it has 100,000 members. In a phone interview from Wheaton, Ill., where leaders of the new group met, Duncan called Wednesday's announcement an "exciting and remarkable moment" for traditionalists.
Williams has been striving for years to find a compromise that would keep liberal and conservative Anglicans together, but unlike a pope, he lacks the power to force a resolution.
The Anglican Communion links 38 self-governing provinces that trace their roots to the missionary work of the Church of England. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the U.S., while the Anglican Church in Canada represents the communion in that country.
Anglicans have been debating for decades over what members of their fellowship should believe. Tensions erupted in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who lives with his longtime male partner.
Around the same time, some Canadian Anglican leaders began authorizing blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions, saying biblical teachings on social justicerequired them to do so. The actions pushed the Anglican family to the brink of schism.
A London spokesman for the Anglican Communion did not respond to a request for comment.
Michael Pollesel, general security of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the new province leaders "really have no standing with the Anglican Communion at this point."
The Rev. Charles Robertson, adviser to the head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, underscored that the U.S. and Canadian churches are "the recognized presence of the Anglican Communion in North America." He said the U.S. church welcomes people with different views.
The immediate impact of Wednesday's announcement on the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church of Canada, with has about 640,000 people on its rolls, was unclear.
There are conservatives in both countries who will not join the new province and instead have vowed to stay within their national denominations despite theological differences.
The new province will not be fully formed for months, or perhaps longer, as it goes through the process of approving a new constitution and leadership. They also must resolve their own theological differences, over ordaining women and other issues.
In the four breakaway Episcopal dioceses, legal challenges over property will likely take resources away from building the new province. The four dioceses are Fort Worth, Texas; Pittsburgh; Quincy, Ill.; and San Joaquin, based in Fresno, Calif. National Episcopal leaders are helping local parishioners reorganize those dioceses.
The new conservative province already has the support of several national Anglican leaders, including the archbishops of Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya and the Southern Cone, based in Argentina. Duncan and other leaders are soliciting more support from the overseas archbishops. However, it's unclear whether acceptance by individual archbishops will lead to full recognition by the Anglican Communion.Wed Dec 3, 6:33 pm ET