The Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, was given until the end of the month to state unequivocally that it will not ordain any more gay bishops or authorize rites to bless same-sex unions.

If the U.S. bishops refuse, overseas Anglican archbishops have promised unspecified "consequences" that could drive the U.S. church from the Communion or lead other Anglicans out the door.

Meanwhile, several conservative U.S. dioceses have recently threatened to leave the Episcopal Church if the meeting doesn't go their way.

"It is still theoretically possible there will be some surprises," Central Florida Bishop John Howe said in a church newsletter. "But nearly every observer of the events of the past several years is convinced that a watershed moment is at hand."

The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who heads the Church of England and serves as spiritual leader to the world's nearly 77 million Anglicans, will travel to New Orleans for two days of closed-door meetings with the bishops.

Williams is charged with unifying the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, a task that has grown more difficult as clashes continue over the 2003 election of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man in New Hampshire.

Among the issues Williams and the U.S. bishops will hash out in New Orleans are:

  • Has the Episcopal Church promised that it will not elect any more gay bishops?
  • Will Episcopalians pledge not to authorize any rites for blessing same-gender couples?
  • Will the Episcopal Church create a separate leadership structure for dissident conservatives?

Some Episcopalians argue that the church answered the first question last summer when it called for "restraint" before electing bishops "whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on the Communion."

And the national church has never authorized any rites for same-sex blessing, said the Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. (Some local dioceses do permit the blessings.)

Still, people looking for easy answers may leave New Orleans disappointed, Douglas said. "All too often, those who are fostering division within the Anglican Communion seek to make international Anglican meetings lines in the sand," he said. "As Anglicans we believe that life in the body of Christ is much more complex."

But conservatives in the U.S. and abroad — particularly leaders in the Global South—say Episcopalians must go further to bring themselves in line with the rest of the Communion.

African archbishops have appointed 11 Americans as missionary bishops — including three in the last month—to oversee disaffected conservative congregations in the U.S.

At the same time, at least three U.S. dioceses — Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Tex., and Quincy, Ill.—recently threatened to leave the Episcopal Church if they are unsatisfied by the meeting in New Orleans.

"I am pleased to report to you that the realignment of the Anglican Communion is well under way," Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker said in a statement.

A network of conservative bishops has already planned a meeting for Sept. 25-28 in Pittsburgh. Among the items on the agenda is a "new ecclesiastical structure of the Anglican Communion in the U.S.A."

Related Elsewhere:

Our previous coverage of Anglican division is available in our special section.

Kendall Harmon of TitusOneNine and have commentary on the issues Anglicans will face in New Orleans.