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Gay Issue Boils Over In Dallas

With a schism in the Episcopal Church looking ever more likely, angry conservatives formally denounced the denomination's growing acceptance of gay relationships Thursday and pleaded with Anglican bishops worldwide to help them reorganize the American church.

Conservatives ended an emotional three-day meeting by issuing a declaration that demands church leaders repent. It also looks to overseas Anglican bishops to "guide the realignment" of the denomination.

Though the situation is volatile, the gathering sponsored by the American Anglican Council gave a huge boost to an emerging conservative network that could evolve into a new denomination separate from the existing Episcopal Church.

"This is a defining moment in Christian history," Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan said at a news conference after the meeting. There's a "life-threatening" disorder in the Episcopal Church and world Anglicanism, he said.

The issue of whether there's a binding scriptural ban on gay sex has long been disputed by conservatives and liberals, but two votes this summer at the Episcopal national convention brought the issue to a boiling point.

One confirmed the election of a gay cleric with a longtime partner as bishop of New Hampshire, while the other acknowledged that some bishops are allowing blessings of same-sex unions. The conservatives' declaration repudiated those actions, saying they broke "fellowship with the larger body of Christ."

Next week, the heads of the 38 branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, will meet in London to discuss the American crisis and a parallel problem in Canada.

The majority of Anglican leaders, or primates, support the conservatives' position on homosexuality. However, within the Episcopal Church, conservatives acknowledge they are in the minority.

The Dallas statement was approved with an amazing show of unity. Virtually all the 2,700 priests and lay members present stood to endorse the declaration, then signed individual copies to be taken to the London meeting.

"Can this church be birthed? In one sense it is here, right now, in this room," said Canon David Anderson, president of the AAC.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who supports the Episcopal majority and will represent the U.S. denomination in London, issued a statement Thursday lamenting what he called the "inflammatory rhetoric" and "ultimatums" coming from the meeting.

"In such a climate, mutual pursuit of ways to build up rather than tear down is made more difficult," Griswold said, though the church "must take seriously" the conservatives' "grief and anger."

"Regardless of what has been said or concluded, those gathered in Dallas are our brothers and sisters in Christ," Griswold wrote.

The conservatives' statement purposely left undefined what a realignment of the church should look like, leaving it up to the leaders in London to decide. But people at the Dallas meeting emphatically believe they and like-minded Canadians are North America's authentic Anglicans, while it is church leaders who have broken away.

Their statement asks Anglican leaders to discipline Episcopal bishops who "have departed from biblical faith and order," and to provide special bishops for conservative American priests and congregations that are in liberal dioceses. Such a step would surely anger local bishops, who would see the move as an intrusion on their turf.

The Dallas declaration, titled "A Place to Stand, A Call to Action," also says conservative Episcopalians should redirect their financial giving "to the fullest extent possible" toward conservative ministries and away from the national denomination and other agencies that support its policies.

Also on Thursday, the AAC clarified its statement earlier in the meeting that 46 bishops were attending the gathering by saying that only about half of those prelates are in the Episcopal Church hierarchy - the rest came from groups that have already left the church. Twelve Episcopal bishops took the platform at the closing session.

Still, speakers said the conservatives already have in place all they need to shape a new North American Anglican denomination, with not only bishops but numerous priests, seminaries, missionary agencies, and even a Sunday School curriculum.

During the meeting, half of those attending answered an electronic questionnaire. Of that group, 57 percent said they will definitely or probably leave the Episcopal Church "if nothing really changes in the next few months."

By Richard N. Ostling