The meeting, set to begin Tuesday, was originally planned as a strategy session for a few hundred leaders. But it mushroomed in scope as conservatives reacted against two actions by the Episcopal Church's midsummer convention: confirmation of a gay bishop living with his partner, and a vote to recognize — though not endorse or condemn — that bishops are allowing blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
The presence in Dallas of 45 of the church's 300 bishops underscores the gravity of the situation.
Episcopal Bishops voted 62-45 in early August to approve the election of their first openly gay bishop, Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Robinson had been cleared of sexual misconduct accusations a few hours before the vote was taken.
"We have two to three weeks to see the future of the Episcopal Church in America," says the Rev. David Roseberry, whose 4,000-member Christ Church in suburban Plano organized the event.
He refers not only to the Dallas meeting but, more importantly, an Oct. 15-16 emergency summit in London for leaders of the international Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch.
That session involves the Anglicans' spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and the 37 other heads of world Anglican branches. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church also is a member of that group and defends the decisions reached this summer in Minneapolis.
The American Anglican Council, sponsor of the Dallas meeting, says that U.S. conservatives are loyal to Anglican beliefs and the Christian tradition, so it's the Episcopal Church majority that has broken away into schism.
Griswold had tried to send four observers to the meeting but they were turned away. Bruce Mason, a council spokesman, said observers were not allowed at the meeting and registration was limited to those who signed the organization's statement of faith, called "A Place to Stand."
Founded in 1996, the AAC has emerged as the most important conservative Episcopal caucus. It reports a mailing list of 50,000 and support from about 500 congregations and 50 bishops. Spokesman Bruce Mason says "we probably represent a minority within the Episcopal Church but are part of the vast majority worldwide."
Jim Naughton, spokesman for the Diocese of Washington, D.C., and part of that liberal majority, estimates that, at most, 14 percent of the 2.3 million Episcopalians favor traditionalist protests. Naughton is part of a team in Dallas observing the meeting, which concludes Thursday.
Any Episcopal split would presumably be the biggest in the United States since 1976, when 100,000 members quit the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The Episcopal Church also suffered 1970s walkouts, over women priests and revisions in liturgy, but they were minor by comparison.
The election of the gay bishop is affecting Anglican relations with other Christian denominations. When Williams met Pope John Paul II, head of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, the pontiff referred to elevating the gay bishop when he warned: "We must also recognize the new and serious difficulties that have arisen on the path to unity."
"These difficulties are not all of a merely disciplinary nature; some extend to essential matters of faith and morals," John Paul said. "Faced with the increasing secularism of today's world, the Church must ensure that the deposit of faith is proclaimed in its integrity and preserved from erroneous and misguided interpretations."
The Dallas meeting's major action will be a petition to the London summit that's likely to ask the world leaders to provide special bishops to minister to conservatives within liberal U.S. dioceses, instead of their regular bishops.
The petition could also repeat an idea approved by recent conventions of the Fort Worth and Pittsburgh Dioceses, asking the London summit to declare the traditionalists to be the authentic U.S. branch of Anglicanism, in effect suspending or expelling the Episcopal Church.
Whatever emerges, "we need a safe place to be, safe from theological and spiritual harassment, harassment to careers, and danger to our property," says Canon David C. Anderson of Stone Mountain, Ga., AAC president.
He says AAC leaders will be holding a follow-up meeting sometime after the London summit.
A split is implied in such program topics here as "Talking Points for Answering Difficult Questions" and the legalistic "Constitutions, Canons, Pensions, Properties and Jurisdictions."
Who gets church property in a split could be among the toughest problems discussed in Dallas. The most radical position came from the Pittsburgh diocesan convention: a declaration that buildings now belong to each congregation, denying the national denomination's claim to control all property under 1979 legislation.
Roseberry says, "we are prepared, and preparing, for what God is going to do next."