Why Episcopal Conservatives Won't Split

— More than a dozen conservative bishops may have angrily walked out of the Episcopal Church's convention on Tuesday, but don't expect them to leave the denomination.

Why? Because they learned a lesson 27 years ago, when the church battled over whether or not to allow female clergy. After a huge fight that Episcopalians still recall and dissect, the church voted yes — and some of the conservatives said with much fanfare, "Goodbye, we're starting our own church."

Who’s Mainstream?

Yet today, few people even remember the names of the splinter churches they formed. They are tiny and without influence. Conservatives are well aware of the history and have played the gay issue quite differently.

Lesson One: Schism gets headlines (briefly) but not much else.

Forming a new denomination would disconnect conservatives from the 73 million-member Worldwide Anglican Communion — churches in England and around the world — denying them influence, money and support. Individual parishes will also be reluctant to leave because the Episcopal Church owns the buildings and their financial assets. Instead, conservatives will look to affiliate with a church overseas so they can remain part of the official Anglican Communion.

Lesson Two: It's all about the battle to define "mainstream."

Today, women are accepted as clergy in most Christian groups, and those who opposed women's ordination appear in hindsight to have been on the fringe. And so, conservative Episcopalians in the current debate have been careful to present themselves as moderate, while portraying Episcopal church leaders as ultra-liberals who stole "their" church out from under them.

"This body, willfully confirming the election of a person sexually active outside of holy matrimony, has departed from the historic faith and order of the church of Jesus Christ," Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh said on behalf of the dissenting bishops.

The Web site of the main conservative group — the American Anglican Council — welcomes visitors with this greeting: "We are mainstream Anglicans. We are orthodox Episcopalians. We're missionaries called to fulfill the Great Commission, to proclaim Biblical truth and to transform the Episcopal Church from within. We'd love to share our mission and ministry with you."

Worldwide Alliances

Lesson Three: Play on liberal white guilt.

Last time, conservatives opposing ordination argued that a rift would harm relations with the Roman Catholic Church. This did not persuade American Episcopalians, who were (and still are) the church of elites and intellectuals.

This time, the AAC has teamed up with Anglican leaders in Africa and Asia — where, they point out, Anglicans are growing the fastest — who say they will not associate with a church that permits a gay bishop.

Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, condemned Robinson's election as "a Satanic attack on God's church." The Church of Nigeria serves 17.5 million people and ranks second in size to the mother Church of England. The Anglican Communion brings together 38 churches founded by the Church of England in the days of the British Empire.

"What makes this battle interesting is that the conservatives know how to play upon white liberal guilt," says Robert Bruce Mullin, an Episcopal Church historian at General Theological Seminary in New York. Mullin said the appeal to Third World Christian sensibilities is "poignant" and smart, though he believes they will ultimately fail.

Others disagree. Allen Guelzo, an Episcopal Church historian at Eastern College in St. David's, Pa., said the Third World alliance may give dissidents the leverage they need to actually split the Worldwide Anglican Communion.

"People in Africa don't have this American clubbiness," Guelzo says. "They'll walk. They are the majority. So that gives an entirely new heft to dissident protests. If the African bishops really do proceed as they have threatened, then we have introduced an entirely novel situation.

"All bets are off," he said, "And no one knows where this takes them."

But that doesn't mean the conservatives will leave their denomination. Instead, they will try to have the Episcopal Church forced out of the Anglican Communion.

Next Moves?

At a meeting in Virginia last month, 23 bishops from eight countries issued a statement saying that if Robinson were confirmed as bishop, the action would "separate" the Episcopal church from "historic Christian faith and teaching," and "alienate it from the fellowship and accountability of the worldwide Anglican family."

Bishops from Africa, Asia and Latin America, representing more than one-third of Anglican Communion members worldwide, earlier this year announced they were severing relations with a diocese that authorizes same-sex blessings — the Diocese of New Westminster, based in Vancouver. One of the leaders in that split was Akinola.

In the days before the vote, AAC president Canon David Anderson said that if the Episcopal Church confirmed Robinson, "The Anglican Communion will see one of its family members leave the fold. As for the AAC, we are committed to remaining very much a part of the Anglican family. We're staying."

He said the AAC will hold an "extraordinary meeting" in October to decide its next move.

After Monday's vote, conservatives appealed to overseas bishops to "intervene in the pastoral emergency that has overtaken us."

What the conservatives plan is unclear, however. Some parishes could, for instance, split from their dioceses and refuse to recognize more liberal Episcopalians, yet stop short of schism.

Ultimately, conservatives and liberals alike will pray, cry, and yell at each other. They'll hold meetings and caucuses and issue pronouncements. There will be a gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and conservatives won't like it. But the most likely outcome is that all of them — conservative, moderate, liberal, gay, and straight — will remain in the same church.