The atmosphere could not have been tenser as the world's Anglican archbishops gathered in the privacy of Lambeth Palace in London. The world was watching. Conservative Anglicans -- most from Third World altars -- were furious that the U.S. Episcopal Church and its allies were ignoring global calls not to enthrone a noncelibate gay bishop in New Hampshire.
No doubt about it, the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson grabbed headlines and easily won the Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine its top 10 events of 2003. More than 80 percent of the religion-beat specialists named Robinson as Religion Newsmaker of the Year, beating out Pope John Paul II and deposed Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.
But there was much more to this story than the election of one bishop in a tiny Episcopal diocese and the development of same-sex union rites for Anglican altars in North America. After all, there are 2 million Episcopalians. There are between 40 and 50 million Anglicans in Africa, alone.
Robinson's consecration raised a question that could no longer be avoided: How can the Anglican Communion remain intact when it is divided by sacraments, rather than united by them?
Consider a symbolic moment in the Lambeth Palace summit, when traditionalists learned that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams would open that October meeting with the Holy Eucharist. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria quickly informed Williams that several primates could not take part, since they no longer considered themselves in Communion with U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.
"They did this privately, as a courtesy, because they didn't want to create a scene," said an American priest active in debriefing sessions with the archbishops.
Williams was horrified, his face flushed. The archbishop of Canterbury pleaded with Akinola and members of the Third World coalition to receive Communion.
"Rowan asked them to receive since they remained in Communion with him," said another activist close to the African archbishops. "They did so. If they had not had the discussion about not receiving, they would not have been able to produce the tough statement that came out of the meeting. "If they had not received, the meeting would have been over."
Williams drew a sacramental line at the altar and demanded that the Third World archbishops cross it. But will they continue to do so? For how long?
Anglicans are not alone in wrestling with these moral, doctrinal and sacramental questions. Just ask the Presbyterians, Lutherans and United Methodists.
Their answers will affect everything from the number of bodies in pews, to the number of dollars in offering plates, to the number of lawyers on denominational payrolls.
Here are the rest of the top 10 stories in the RNA poll:
(2) The war in Iraq divided some religious communities, with the National Council of Churches and other mainline churches opposed while most evangelical Protestants supported the White House. Some relief efforts also caused controversy.
(3) Clashing definitions of "marriage" continued to cause controversy as the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned a gay-marriage ban. Meanwhile conservatives debated how to word a proposed constitutional amendment on marriage. A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court ended a Texas ban against homosexual sodomy.
(4) Amid a flurry of protest and litigation, a Ten Commandments monument was removed from Alabama's Judicial Building. Justice Moore was removed from office.
(5) The Roman Catholic Church earned both praise and scorn as it tried to implement plans to combat priestly sex abuse. Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley of Palm Beach succeeded Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston and earned high marks. Convicted sex-abuser John Geoghan was killed in prison.
(6) The pope celebrated the 25th anniversary of his election, while growing concerns about his health fueled renewed speculation about his eventual successor.
(7) A tough economy and, in many cases, strife in pews caused red ink and budget cuts in many denominations.
(8) After intense debate, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) retained its "fidelity and chastity" standards for clergy sexual behavior.
(9) The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a California case challenging the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
(10) The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod overturned the suspension of New York President David Benke for participation in an interfaith service after Sept.11. Further debate on interfaith worship is expected in 2004.