It's one of the country's smaller but more influential denominations. And it's breaking apart. Deep-seated differences over theology have led to the rift in the Episcopal church.
Now, many break-away churches believe their future may lie in the Third World. In the last several years, some 800 churches have left the Episcopal church.
Rich American History
The denomination has a rich history in the United States. It was created as the American branch of the Church of England or Anglican church. Its earliest congregations date back to our country's founding years. And while the denomination today is small with just over 2 million members, it remains influential.
Episcopalians claim 1 out of 4 U.S. presidents, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and now -- a division that some believe will eventually hit all major U.S. denominations.
So what's at stake? Dr. Edith Humphrey, an Anglican who teaches at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, explains, "It's not about sex. It's about how we understand the Scriptures -- how we construe the Gospel."
In many respects, Pittsburgh represents the eye of the Episcopalian storm. Just last November, members of the diocese voted to separate from the national church. And leadership in Pittsburgh is heading an effort to join with and unify other breakaway churches across the country.
Fifty years ago, a Pittsburgh priest prayed that the city would become as famous for God as it was for steel. Today, his prayers may be coming true. Pittsburgh bishop Robert Duncan leads the movement that plans to unify the splinter churches. He boldly calls the effort "reformation."
"What I and others on the conserving side of the Episcopal church represent is this clear vision that the church can never be anything other than under God's Word and can never be anything other than submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ," he says.
The last straw for many came with the ordination of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in 2003. Since then, the splinter churches have sought refuge in the worldwide Anglican church. They're now under the authority of churches in Africa and South America. These Third World congregations are also theologically orthodox. And they're growing. Today more than 43 million Anglicans attend church in Africa alone -- that's more than half of all Anglicans worldwide.
"Isn't it staggering" says Duncan, "that God would lift up the church in Southeast Asia instead of the church in Britain -- or the church in Uganda instead of the church in America?"
The phenomenal growth and the split are rocking the Anglican church worldwide. This summer, the church's "Lambeth" conference, held only once every 10 years, will be boycotted by many Third World Anglicans. They'll attend a rival event, The Global Anglican Futures Conference or GAFCON in Jerusalem. Duncan says this represents the shift between two eras.
"Some thing is about a world that once was and one thing is about a world that is emerging," he said.
Humphrey predicts, "I think the real business of the church is going to go on at GAFCON because there we have an opportunity to move on without impediments."
Indeed, many orthodox Anglicans like Humphrey say the worldwide church has already informally split -- unable to agree on Scripture and the belief that Christ is the only means of salvation. Now, all eyes are on the up-and-coming Anglican countries in the Third World and their growing leadership.
Bishop Martyn Minns, who heads a group of orthodox churches in northern Virginia explains, "Some of the old labels -- denomination, national, geographic -- are being put aside and we're going to be connected by vision, by relationships, by networks. Very different. Very messy. Difficult to manage."
But Minns is also eager to explain the delight of fellowship with these orthodox Anglican churches around the globe.
"For them," he says, "being a Christian is not a hobby. It's not a part-time occupation, something you do Sunday mornings. It's who you are."
Many orthodox Anglicans in the U.S. say they're relieved to have made the split with the Episcopal church. They're now free to preach and teach with a high view of Scripture. Tom Wilson, a member of the Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia, says the priests are much more free in the pulpit, "now they can do it without looking over their shoulder before they say something because, this is about the gospel."
To construct a new orthodox body will probably take several years. Immediately ahead lies a host of legal battles over church property. Jim Oakes, a member of Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia noted, "Though we would like to say we've moved on -- every time we turn around there's another court issue or another headline."
It appears that a core identity is already emerging among U.S. orthodox Anglicans. They're unified by core beliefs about their faith and ready for unification with each other -- and their fellow orthodox Anglicans around the globe. That's good news for this would-be denomination, eager to heal its wounds and plan its future.