NEW YORK – Theological conservatives upset by liberal views of U.S. Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans formed a rival North American province Wednesday, in a long-developing rift over the Bible that erupted when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop.
The announcement represents a new challenge to the already splintering, 77-million-member world Anglican fellowship and the authority of its spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
The new Anglican Church in North America includes four breakaway Episcopal dioceses, dozens of individual parishes in the U.S. and Canada, and splinter groups that left the Anglican family years, or in one case, more than a century ago.
Its future status in the Anglican Communion is unclear.
It is unprecedented for an Anglican national province to be created where any other such national church already exists. But traditionalists say the new group is needed to represent the true historic tradition of Anglican Christianity.
Bishop Robert Duncan, who leads the breakaway Diocese of Pittsburgh, is the proposed new leader of the new North American province, which says it has 100,000 members.
"The Lord is displacing the Episcopal Church," Duncan said in a news conference in Wheaton, Ill., where the proposed constitution for the new province was drafted. He noted that membership and worship attendance in the U.S. denomination have been declining for years.
"We are a body that is growing, that is planting new congregations, that is concerned to be an authentic Christian presence in the U.S. and Canada," Duncan said.
The Rev. Charles Robertson, adviser to Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, said in a statement that "there is room within The Episcopal Church for people with different views and we regret that some have felt the need to depart from the diversity of our common life in Christ."
Williams has been striving for years to find a compromise that would keep Anglicans together, but he lacks the power to force a resolution.
The Anglican Communion links 38 self-governing provinces that trace their roots to the missionary work of the Church of England. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the U.S., while the Anglican Church in Canada represents the communion in that country.
Anglicans have debated for decades over what members of their fellowship should believe. Tensions boiled over in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who lives with his longtime male partner.
Around the same time, some Canadian Anglican leaders began authorizing blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions, saying biblical teachings on social justice required them to do so. The actions pushed the Anglican family to the brink of schism.
A London spokesman for the Anglican Communion did not respond to a request for comment.
Archdeacon Michael Pollesel, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the new province leaders "really have no standing with the Anglican Communion at this point."
Robertson underscored that the U.S. and Canadian churches are "the recognized presence of the Anglican Communion in North America."
The impact of Wednesday's announcement on the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church of Canada, with has about 640,000 people on its rolls, was unclear.
There are conservatives in both countries who will not join the new province and instead have vowed to stay within their national denominations despite theological differences.
The new province will not be fully formed for months, or perhaps longer, as it goes through the process of approving a new constitution and leadership. Members of the new church also must overcome their own theological differences, over ordaining women and other issues.
In the four breakaway Episcopal dioceses, legal challenges over property will likely take resources away from building the new province. The four dioceses are Fort Worth, Texas; Pittsburgh; Quincy, Ill.; and San Joaquin, based in Fresno, Calif. National Episcopal leaders are helping local parishioners reorganize those dioceses.
The new conservative province already has the support of seven leaders of Anglican national churches, called primates, including the archbishops of Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya and the Southern Cone, based in Argentina. Duncan and others are soliciting more support from the overseas archbishops. However, it's not known whether that will lead to full acceptance by the communion.
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