Speakers at a conference of more than 2,700 conservatives described the Episcopal Church's liberal policies on homosexuality as "heresy" and "apostasy," and participants planned a Thursday vote on a formal appeal to the international Anglican Communion.
Those attending the three-day meeting organized by the conservative American Anglican Council submitted responses Wednesday to a proposed draft of a declaration from the meeting. Leaders were to rewrite the document overnight for endorsement before departing Thursday.
"We plan to send a very clear, decisive message to the Episcopal Church asking it to repent and reverse these actions," said the Rev. David Roseberry, of Plano.
At a convention in Minneapolis this summer, the church confirmed the election of a gay bishop living with his partner and voted to recognize that its bishops are allowing blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
The conservatives' meeting in Dallas is about finding ways to fight back against those decisions, with the possibility of a schism looming. About 45 of the church's 300 bishops are attending.
The meeting received a surprise greeting at the end of Wednesday's sessions from Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal office. He expressed "my heartfelt prayers" for the Episcopalians at the meeting and said Christians share "a unity of truth" with one another.
Four lawyers advised the meeting on the rights of clergy and congregations if a schism occurs. The advice: hire one of the rare attorneys who is an expert on church property, check state and diocese laws and be careful with words and actions. Clergy were assured that vested pensions of those who've worked five years were secure.
With feelings strong on both sides in many congregations, the potential split threatens not just the denomination, but individual parishes.
"Some people just wish it would go away," the Rev. Chris Ditzenberger, of Greenville, S.C., said of views held by his parishioners.
"There's a lot of fearfulness about what else could happen down the line with regard to our doctrine and our understanding of the gospel."
Conservatives acknowledge they're in the minority in the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. But they believe they are in the majority among Anglicans around the globe.
Next week, 38 leaders of the world's Anglican branches will gather at an emergency session in London to discuss the American situation and a similar dispute among Anglicans in Canada.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold, released a letter Wednesday that he sent to U.S. bishops saying the confirmation of gay clergyman V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire did not settle the debate in the church over homosexuality. He also expressed his wish that Episcopalians could move beyond "condemnation and reaction."
But the draft version of the conservative declaration commits supporters to stop funding Episcopal dioceses and agencies that support the convention decisions, and appeals to next week's meeting to "create a new alignment for Anglicanism in North America."
For many Episcopalians, angst is mixed with uncertainty as they await the world primates' guidance.
"Mostly, all of us now are just kind of listening and waiting," said the Rev. Clifton Warner, a 33-year-old deacon from El Paso.