NEW YORK Conservatives from the world's largest Anglican provinces who are angered by liberal thinking in churches in North America and elsewhere plan to create a global fellowship that challenges worldwide Anglican unity but stops short of a formal split.
The plan is expected to be adopted Sunday on the final day of the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem. The summit was called by Anglican leaders in Africa and parts of North America and Australia outraged by what they consider a "false gospel" in liberal churches.
Opponents played down the significance of the new fellowship, contending the Anglican Communion already has networks of like-minded churches. But theological conservatives insist they are at the beginning of a movement that will alter the centuries-old Anglican family.
"A major realignment has occurred and will continue to unfold," they said in their "Statement on the Global Anglican Future."
The Anglican Communion is a 77 million-member family of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England. It is the third-largest grouping of churches in the world, behind Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and has always held together different views. However, long-standing divisions over how Anglicans should interpret Scripture erupted in 2003 when the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. Anglican body. Anglicans in developing countries where the fastest-growing and largest churches in the communion are located mostly hold to a strict interpretation of the Bible. The archbishops, or primates, of the provinces of Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and the Southern Cone based in Argentina were among those at the Jerusalem event.
The Jerusalem meeting was held just ahead of a once-a-decade gathering of all Anglican bishops, called the Lambeth Conference. The upcoming assembly is viewed by many as a test of the leadership of Archbishop Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual head.
Archbishop Williams does not havethe power to force a compromise among conflicting Anglican factions and has faced criticism from many Anglican camps for his actions in the crisis.
Some of the more than 200 bishops in Jerusalem plan to boycott Lambeth, which begins July 16 in England. Williams has invited U.S. bishops who consecrated Robinson but has barred Robinson and a few other bishops from attending. Still, conservatives at the Jerusalem event repeatedly criticized Williams for failing to fully discipline the Episcopal Church.
In their official statement, conservatives said they "do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the archbishop of Canterbury" a direct challenge to his leadership. And they called the current setup for the communion, with the archbishop of Canterbury at its center, "a colonial structure."
As part of their new fellowship, conservatives said they would continue to take oversight of breakaway churches in the U.S. and other Anglican territories who reject their liberal leaders. Conservatives hope to eventually form a North American province counter to the Anglican tradition that archbishops oversee parishes only in their own provinces.
"We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed," they wrote.
Conservatives are a minority in the 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church. Still, the denomination is fighting several legal battles to bar secessionists from leaving with church assets. On Friday, a judge in Virginia said state law allows 11 breakaway parishes to hold onto their property worth tens of millions of dollars. An appeal is expected.