Division by Communion

One of the symbolic moments in the life of a priest is when he stands at the altar beside his bishop, or even his nation's highest bishop, and celebrates a Mass.

But Father Robert Sanders of Jacksonville recently made a tough decision. He decided that if U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold came to his parish, he wouldn't allow him to receive Holy Communion, let alone preside at the altar. This decision led logically to another. Sanders decided that he would need to break communion with Bishop John Howard of the Diocese of Florida, because he is in communion with Griswold.

"I didn't make this decision because I was angry," said Sanders. "I chose to break communion because many of our bishops are no longer teaching the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. ... It took me a long time to be convinced that our situation is as serious as it is. I tried to exhaust all of my options while staying inside the church. I finally ran out of options."

Sanders is one Episcopal priest caught in a puzzle of global proportions, facing hard decisions about his faith and career. But many others are stuck in the same predicament.

In the headlines, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and a large cast of prelates from Africa, Asia, America and elsewhere are involved in high-wire diplomacy while trying to avoid schism among the world's 77 million Anglicans. Meanwhile, legal task forces in the United States are preparing to fight over millions of dollars in pensions, endowments and property -- with the Episcopal House of Bishops on the left and the Anglican Communion Network on the right.

These clashes are about marriage, sex, salvation, biblical authority and other ancient issues of faith and practice. But these lofty debates are also affecting the down-to-earth realities of daily life for many Episcopalians, as well the faithful in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church and other oldline Protestant denominations.

For the 63-year-old Sanders, it meant resigning at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, the third largest parish in the local diocese, and forming the new Christ the King Anglican Fellowship. His small flock meets in the chapel of a Baptist church.

"Everyone thinks we did what we did because of the homosexuality issue," said Sanders, referring to the 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire.

"It's shameful to say it, but there are plenty of people who could look the other way when we had heretics denying the lordship of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, the virgin birth and all kinds of things. But now they're ready to take a stand, because they just don't like gay people. It's a dismal commentary on the state of the church that sexuality had to be the dividing line. It should have never come to this."

For Sanders, the problem was knowing when and where to draw the line. After all, Episcopalians are -- following early-church traditions -- supposed to find doctrinal unity through their bishops.

But today, there are conservative bishops who have broken communion with the progressive leadership of the U.S. Episcopal Church and others who have not. Should a conservative priest break communion with a conservative bishop because he has refused to break communion with a liberal bishop?

There are conservative bishops who do not support the ordination of women and other conservatives who do. There are liberal bishops who support the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians. There are bishops who say they believe it is acceptable to worship gods other than the God of the Bible.

What are local priests supposed to do in this maze? To whom, asked Sanders, are they supposed to turn for guidance? Many priests feel stranded.

"The bishops are supposed to be the people who are helping us defend the faith, but right now I feel like they are the source of most of the confusion," he said.

"Priests aren't supposed to have to make all of these decisions. I know that, but I reached the point where I felt that I had to act. I decided that didn't have to know all of the truth in order to decide to defend the truth that I do know, the basic truths that the church has handed down from generation to generation."