It's been seven years since Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison faced the fact that some of his fellow bishops worship a different god than he does.
The symbolic moment came during an Episcopal House of Bishops meeting in Kanuga, N.C., as members met in small groups to discuss graceful ways to settle their differences on the Bible, worship and sex. The question for the day was: "Why are we dysfunctional?"
"I said the answer was simple - apostasy," said Allison, a dignified South Carolinian who has a doctorate in Anglican history from Oxford University. "Some of the other bishops looked at me and said, 'What are you talking about?'"
Many Episcopalians, he explained at the time, have embraced the work of theologians such as Carter Heyward, a lesbian priest, seminary professor and author of books such as "Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God." Allison asked the bishops how they would deal with those who say they serve a god that is "older and greater" than the God of the Bible.
Some of the bishops said they either shared this belief or could not condemn it.
When the time came to celebrate the Eucharist, Allison knew what he had to do in this particular circle of bishops. He declined to share the bread and the wine, but didn't publicized his act of conscience. Now, the retired South Carolina bishop has openly crossed a line in Episcopal canon law, signaling his belief that "broken communion" is becoming necessary between many bishops, their priests and their flocks.
This past Sunday (May 16), Allison served as celebrant in a Mass for members of St. Paul's Parish in Brockton, Mass., who have been evicted from their sanctuary after clashes with Diocese of Massachusetts leaders who are liberalizing church teachings on marriage and sex.
For 10 weeks, the orthodox outcasts have been worshipping on the sidewalk outside their old church. A cell of diocesan loyalists now has legal rights to the building and the name, St. Paul's Parish. On Sunday, the 72-year-old Allison joined about 100 worshippers - including Anglicans from Nigeria, Uganda, Liberia and Haiti -- in a procession around the corner to meet in a gymnasium at a Seventh-day Adventist church.
Allison was supposed to have received Massachusetts Bishop Thomas Shaw's permission before leading rites in his diocese. He didn't do that.
"I definitely broke canon laws. I freely admit that," said Allison. "Right now, I think it would be a badge of honor to be censured by the House of Bishops. Of course, if they put me on trial they will give me a platform to discuss the key issue - which is what I believe and what they no longer believe."
The Brockton case is important for several other reasons. First, clashes over the rights of existing parishes, and independent missions, are increasing -- in the Carolinas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Washington, Georgia and Texas, as well as other cases in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, emerging American networks - such as the Association of Anglican Congregations on Mission - are seeking new spiritual and even legal ties with Third World conservatives who won major doctrinal battles with First World progressives at last summer's Lambeth Conference in Canterbury.
And finally, said Allison, similar tensions over the ties that bind exist in other folds, such as the United Methodists, old-line Presbyterians, the Disciples and many Lutherans. In most cases, these conflicts appear to be about marriage and sex, with fights over same-sex union rites and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals getting the ink. But these sexual issues are signs of deeper divisions.
It's tragic to have to talk about breaking communion, said Allison. But it's also impossible to ignore the doctrinal cracks in the foundations of so many churches.
"I know that we can't go around giving everybody orthodoxy tests all the time," he said. "But right now we can't agree about what the creeds mean, what the scriptures mean or even on the ultimate issue of who God is. At some point we will have to be honest and say that if we are not united in one faith, how can we be in communion with one another?"