'Independent,' yet 'Anglican'?

STAFFORD, Texas -- Father Tony Tripi's new church is called Tri-City Fellowship, a businesslike name that fits in among the signs for oil-tech firms, furniture warehouses, computer pros and everybody else that's floating in the sea of office complexes that encircles Houston.

"We're a fellowship and we serve Stafford, Sugar Land and Missouri City," said the Brooklyn-born priest, who in October led 300 of his parishioners out of the Episcopal Church of the Advent. "Some people were surprised that there isn't a saint in the new name - like St. John, or St. Mark, or whatever. But right now we've decided that we just need to say what we are."

"Tri-City Fellowship" sounds like one of the legions of user-friendly, entrepreneurial, freelance churches that have changed the face of modern Protestantism. But that's just the first part of the name. The second part is "A Christian Community in the Anglican Tradition."

In other words, Tripi's church claims that it is "Anglican," yet free of the legal structure and authority of the Diocese of Texas. As such, his parish resembles St. Andrew's Church in Little Rock, Ark., a controversial mission that has defied its local shepherd and now claims ties to a Rwandan bishop. Tripi's flock is linking up with Archbishop Moses Tay of Singapore.

Both of these cases are signs of the tensions between First World progressives and Third World traditionalists that dominated last summer's Lambeth conference in Canterbury. But the Tri-City Fellowship story also resonates throughout mainline Protestantism. It's becoming more common to see United Methodists bucking the United Methodist system to defend what they believe are core Methodist beliefs. The same thing is happening with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Disciples and so forth.

At some point, said Tripi, doctrines must be more important than denominations.

"My telephone keeps ringing with calls from people throughout the mainline world," he said. "People are saying, 'We are right where you are and we're having to look at doing exactly what you've done.'... They're all caught up in systems that have become oppressive and that aren't getting the job done. "

Obviously, Houston Bishop Claude Payne disagrees with this analysis. He notes his conservative record on evangelism and morality, including hot-button issues of sexuality. He considers Tripi a rebel who has abandoned his altar -- leaving behind the parish's property, assets and sizable debts. But he also disagrees with the priest's conviction that orthodox bishops must attack those who want to revise church doctrines. The bishop believes that is too negative.

"Christ needs no defenders. ... Many portions of our church that are issue-driven continue to decline," he wrote, in letter to Tripi's parishioners. This is true on left and right, because those on each side get "so possessed and obsessed with fighting that they are hardly attractive to those who are lost. It is tragic, each struggling so desperately to 'uphold the truth' as they understand it, that they cease to be in a posture of sharing the truth."

Sadly, the bishop said he must lead efforts to defrock this priest because "failure to do so would undermine the structure that enables us to be an Anglican Church."

Tripi admits that he's "guilty, as charged" of rebelling against the Episcopal Church and he is willing to endure a trial to "make a public witness" about why he took this stand. The key, he said, is that when bishops are consecrated each takes a vow to "guard the faith, unity and discipline" of the church.

So defending church unity does require bishops to defend the faith of the ages, said Tripi. This is true even if it causes division in the present. Meanwhile, his freeborn church already has 500 members and is preparing for life in the crowded and confusing church marketplace.

"I am an Anglican priest," he said. "I also believe that our church stands with other Anglicans around the world. There will be a short season in which folks like us have to be separated. We will have to step aside and leave the Episcopal Church. But we are going to be brought back under the same umbrella soon -- I think sooner than anyone can imagine."