After wars over Bible, marriage and sex: Union possible for Episcopalians, Methodists on left?

After wars over Bible, marriage and sex: Union possible for Episcopalians, Methodists on left?

Next year, delegates at the United Methodist Church's General Conference are supposed to consider a full-communion plan with the U.S. Episcopal Church.

"We seek to draw closer in mission and ministry, grounded in sufficient agreement in the essentials of Christian faith and order and assisted by interchangeability of ordained ministries," states the current text for "A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness."

This is not a merger proposal, but: "We see this relationship of full communion as a step on the journey. … We are blessed in that neither of our churches, or their predecessor bodies, have officially condemned one another, nor have they formally called into question the faith, the ministerial orders, or the sacraments of the other church."

However, events in the United Methodist Church have given some members of that flock -- especially LGBTQ clergy and laity -- a strong incentive to go ahead and investigate nearby Episcopal parishes.

A special General Conference recently voted to reaffirm current doctrine that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The historic gathering also passed pieces of a "Traditionalist Plan" requiring UMC clergy to follow those laws in their Book of Discipline.

So far, leaders on the United Methodist left haven't announced plans to leave. But that doesn't mean that Episcopal clergy and other liberal Protestant leaders shouldn't be prepared to help United Methodists who come their way, said the Rev. David Simmons of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, Wis., a leader in several regional and national ecumenical efforts.

"We have to start with the fact that lots of United Methodists are really hurting," he said, in a telephone interview. "What we should be doing is providing a safe harbor. Our primary motivation shouldn't be to grab members from other churches. … If we do that then we're not being a safe harbor. We can't go around saying, 'United Methodists hare having trouble, so let's recruit them.' "

Thus, Simmons recently posted an online essay entitled, "How to Deal With Methodists at your Red Church Doors" -- referring to the front doors at most Episcopal parishes. His subtitle was even more blunt: "Don't be a Jerk."

Symbols in the Texas hills

KERRVILLE, Texas -- The bracelet is both simple and a bit strange, since it consists of six or seven fishing lures connected end to end. Some people look at this piece of silver or gold jewelry in the James Avery line and they see fishing lures -- period.

But other shoppers see the same item and they think of these words of Jesus: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." This is especially true if they have completed a United Methodist Walk to Emmaus weekend, or some other renewal program inspired by the Catholic Cursillo movement.

"Most of our customers purchase and wear that for the religious symbolism," said Paul Avery, executive vice president of the company that his father started in a garage. "But there is a group that has no clue what it means. ... They just happen to like it. They like to fish or whatever."

So one man's ring of fishing lures is another man's symbol of faith.

The key is that there is an element of mystery to symbols of this kind, said another veteran of this family-driven firm based in Kerrville, an arts-friendly community in the Texas Hill Country.

"It's interesting that you would never find this in traditional church history, this symbol, but you would find the scriptural reference to being fishers of men," said Howell Ridout, the company's vice president of marketing and development.

This particular bracelet started out as a "grassroots thing that just happened," he explained. Emmaus Walk veterans "actually started using fishing tackle from the hardware store" to remind themselves of the importance of this biblical passage. Now, this modern bracelet is one of the company's most popular items.

Then again, the current catalogue also contains the very first cross that founder James Avery designed in 1954, a variation on a classic Latin design. Some of the Christian and Jewish symbolism used in this jewelry is truly ancient, while other pieces offer modern variations on biblical themes -- such as a bare cross made of nails.

In recent years, Ridout explained, religious items have made up 25 percent of the company's line and about 25 percent of its sales. However, nearly 80 percent of all James Avery customers at one time or another purchase at least one item of religious jewelry. Clearly, these items are central to the company's identity, he said.

For centuries, religious symbolism has been at the heart of some forms of faith. What is unusual about the James Avery story is that almost all of the company's stores -- there will be 59 by the year's end -- are in the Bible Belt and 49 are in Texas.

While its customer base includes a wide range of believers, the chain could not succeed in the region in which it is succeeding without appealing to Baptists and other conservative Protestants who for generations have viewed religious symbolism as too "high church," if not too Catholic.

Then again, the Hill Country location is crucial. Its culture blends art elements from the American Midwest, from Germans settlers, from rustic ranches across the Southwestern and, of course, from Spanish influences. The result is a unique aesthetic expressed in stone, leather, wood and pounded silver.

"Texas is, geographically, a very unique area," said Paul Avery. "You have the deep Hispanic culture that is so rooted in that Catholic base. Then you have more of the Protestant side of that, the non-Catholic. And there's a blend of those two cultures that probably allows a lot of ... natural evolution."

These hills also are full of church youth camps, a network that exposed James Avery's work to young seekers as the 1960s veered into the "Jesus Movement" of the 1970s, which led into an era of charismatic renewal in mainline churches and waves of changes in how many Americans worship.

These days, art and even elements of liturgy can be found in a wide variety of Protestant sanctuaries, Ridout said. Churches of all kinds are moving in a more visual, experiential direction.

It has become common to see Texans wearing crosses -- or perhaps symbolic fishing lures -- as they go to work, to school, to the grocery store or to church.

"I think there are some clues there, both as to what is acceptable and to what's sought after and comfortable," Ridout said. These changes symbolize "what's meaningful to people, what truly motivates them."

Now that's a tough Lent

It was a decade ago during Lent that author Lauren Winner was visited by an angel, unawares. "Actually, it was my priest," said Winner, who teaches Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. "I have learned that people in my life often tell me what I need to do during Lent. ... It's kind of like hearing from angels."

Although the voice wasn't miraculous, Winner thought it would take a miracle to follow her spiritual guide's advice. The challenge was deceptively simple: Could she give up reading during Lent?

At the time, Winner was working as book review editor for Beliefnet.com and studying for her doctorate at Columbia University. She was a writer, editor and student and, naturally, was surrounded by books day after day.

How in the name of God was she supposed to stop reading?

Nevertheless, she decided to try.

"This was not your normal 40 days of work," said Winner, author of "Girl Meets God: A Memoir" and other works of contemporary spirituality. "What I was doing was attacking my own work obsessions. This forced me to examine the place of work in my life. It made me examine other parts of my life, as well."

Fasting traditions during Lent -- the 40-day penitential season before Easter -- have evolved through the ages, especially in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and liturgical Protestant churches that emphasize the church calendar. Winner is active in the Episcopal Church.

For centuries, Catholics ate only one real meal a day, with no meat or fish. Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In many parishes, the faithful are still urged to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent. Orthodox Christians strive to fast from meat and dairy products during all of Lent and Holy Week.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans in a variety of churches follow an informal tradition in which they choose to fast from "one thing" -- such as chocolate or soft drinks -- during Lent. This practice may be linked to a passage in the sixth century monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which states:

"During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God … something above his prescribed measure. Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter."

Winner noted that this practice of "giving up one thing" was supposed to build on the traditional Lenten disciplines linked to food, prayer and almsgiving -- not replace them. The goal was to shine a spotlight into some unexamined corner of one's life.

It didn't take her long, for example, for Winner to realize that she couldn't stop reading -- period. She needed, for example, to reread one book to prepare for an exam. She had to do some reading in order to do her day job, but she asked if she could be relieved from some assignments that she would have accepted, if not for this unique Lenten discipline.

The surprise, said Winner, was how this fast touched her life after the working day. That's when she could almost hear her favorite volumes of history and fiction calling her name (especially the detective novels).

"What this showed me was that I was using reading as an escape. I was reading books as a way to get away from some things," she said, and then laughed. "Fiction is probably a better way to cope with some issues in your life than heroin. But if books are what you're using, then you need to find that out."

In the years since, Winner has repeated this bookish fast several times, while searching for other disciplines that would have a similar impact. This year she is trying to fast from "saying 'yes' all the time," which is harder than it sounds.

"The thing is, Lent isn't a therapeutic self-improvement project," she said. "We're supposed to take a hard look at our sins and then repent. But how do we get to repentance if we have never truly paused to examine our lives? ...

"Most of us are morally and spiritually sleepwalking. We need to wake up and see where we are and what we're doing."

Why journalists (heart) the Episcopal Church

On a typical Sunday, 4,281 Episcopalians attend services in the world-famous Diocese of New Hampshire, according to official church reports. This isn't a large number of worshippers in the pews of 47 parishes -- roughly the same number that would attend weekend Masses in two or three healthy Catholic parishes in a typical American city.

Episcopal attendance in New Hampshire fell sharply between 2003 and 2007, which is the most recent statistical year available (pdf). Meanwhile, this diocese had 15,621 members in 2003 and 14,160 in 2007 -- a loss of 9.4 percent. The entire Diocese of New Hampshire is about the same size as many individual Protestant megachurches.

However, the influential bishop of this little diocese recently told the New York Times that things have been fine since 2003, when he was consecrated in a rite that rocked the global Anglican Communion.

"There are 15,000 people in the diocese of New Hampshire," claimed the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, in what he stressed was an exclusive interview during the national General Convention. This convention made more headlines by approving the selection of gays and lesbians for "any ordained ministry," which means Robinson may soon lose his status as the Episcopal Church's only openly gay, non-celibate bishop.

"We have received so many Roman Catholics and young families," he said, "particularly families who are saying, 'We don't want to raise our daughters in a church that doesn't value young people.' " In fact, the bishop insisted that his diocese "grew by 3 percent last year."

If this early 2008 report is true, then Robinson and his diocese will be in the news again -- offering proof that a liberalized Christianity can lead to growth, rather than decline. If that happens, many reporters will receive a smattering of calls and emails from amazed readers asking: "Why do the Episcopalians get so much news coverage?"

That's a good question, since the Episcopal Church -- with a mere 2 million members -- often draws more attention than the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God and several other major denominations combined.

What's going on? After 30 years on the religion beat, I have decided that several factors are at work.

* Many of the Episcopal Church's most vocal leaders -- such as Robinson -- work in the Northeast near elite media institutions. The church's national offices are in New York City. Meanwhile, Episcopal cathedrals elsewhere are usually in urban centers that dominate regional media. For journalists, the Episcopalians are nearby.

* Conservatives have, for decades, been on the outside looking in when the Episcopal establishment made crucial decisions, in part because many conservative dioceses are in the Sunbelt far from the action. But in the Internet age, even conservatives are seeking, and getting, more media attention.

* Colorful photographs and video clips are crucial and it's hard to offer compelling coverage of convention centers and churches full of clergy in dull business suits. Episcopalians, however, know how to dress up. In fact, their bishops even look like the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church -- the biggest religion-news game in town.

* The true religion of journalism is politics and Episcopalians love to talk politics -- from global warming to feminism, from multiculturalism to military spending, from national health care to gay rights. And in recent decades the denomination's stands on controversial social issues have meshed nicely with the editorial stands taken by America's most powerful media corporations.

The bottom line: Episcopalians wear religious garb, work in convenient urban sanctuaries and speak the lingo of progressive politics. Their leaders look like Catholics and think like journalists.

It also helps to remember that the Episcopal Church's roots connect to Church of England, which gives it a unique role in American history, noted Bishop William Frey of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, who was a media professional before seeking ordination. This small, well-established denomination has helped shape the lives of 11 presidents, 35 U.S. Supreme Court justices and legions of journalists.

Like it our not, the Episcopal Church occupies its own corner in the public square -- which leads to news coverage.

Is that a good thing? Sometimes Frey isn't sure.

"I can't understand why some people want the kind of media attention that we get year after year," he said, during one media storm in the 1980s. "I mean, that's like coveting another man's root canal."

Chopping that Anglican timeline

The resolution from the 1979 Episcopal General Convention in Denver inspired a small wave of headlines, even though it simply restated centuries of doctrine about marriage. "We reaffirm the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality," it said. "Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard."

However, 21 bishops disagreed, publicly stating that gay sexual relationships were "no less a sign to the world of God's love" as traditional marriages. These bishops -- including the Rt. Rev. Edmund Browning, who was chosen as America's presiding bishop six years later -- warned that since "we are answerable before almighty God ... we cannot accept these recommendations or implement them in our dioceses."

It was the start of an ecclesiastical war that has dominated the 70-million-member Anglican Communion for decades.

Then again, this conflict may have started in the 1960s, when Bishop James Pike was censured for his "offensive" and "irresponsible" views questioning the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and other ancient doctrines. And in 1977 a high-profile leader -- Bishop Paul Moore of New York -- created a firestorm when he ordained a priest who identified herself as a lesbian.

It's hard to understand this story without some grasp of this complicated timeline. However, news reports regularly chop off several decades, thus making it appear that these doctrinal clashes began with the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first openly gay, non-celibate Episcopal bishop.

"This whole conflict is actually about the Bible and how you interpret it," said the Rev. George Conger, a correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper. "The polite warfare has been going on for 30 or 40 years. The open warfare truly began in 1997, when the archbishops from Africa and the rest of the Global South met in Jerusalem and decided to let their voices be heard."

In addition to events in the late 1970s, other crucial dates on this timeline include:

* 1989 -- Bishop John Spong of the Diocese of Newark ordains the first homosexual priest who is openly living in a same-sex relationship.

* 1994 -- Spong drafts his Koinonia Statement affirming the ordination of gays and lesbians living in faithful, monogamous relationships -- with the support of 90 bishops. He also publishes his 12 theses for a liberal Reformation, rejecting belief in the transcendent, personal God of the Bible.

* 1996 -- An ecclesiastical court dismisses heresy charges against Bishop Walter Righter, after another controversial ordination. The court says Episcopalians have "no clear doctrine" clearly forbidding the ordination of persons who are sexually active outside of marriage.

* 1998 -- In a stunning defeat for the left, bishops at the global Lambeth Conference in Canterbury declare that sex outside of marriage, including gay sex, is "incompatible with scripture" and call for a ban on same-sex-union rites and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals.

* 2000 -- Archbishops from Rwanda and Southeast Asia consecrate two American conservatives as missionary bishops, escalating global efforts to form an alternative structure for Anglican traditionalists in North America.

Since the consecration of Robinson, the Episcopal Church has made several attempts to appease the large, overwhelmingly conservative Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and other regions overseas. Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has attempted to calm nerves, while starting the process of creating a doctrinal covenant that he hopes will provide unity on issues of faith and practice.

However, early this week the U.S. House of Bishops voted -- by a 99-45 margin -- to allow dioceses to proceed with the selection of gays and lesbians for "any ordained ministry." This effectively overturned a resolution passed at the 2006 General Convention that urged dioceses to refrain from consecrating bishops whose "manner of life" would offend other churches in the Anglican Communion.

"The key question is whether this is a national story or a global story," said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the conservative Diocese of South Carolina. "The way most people tell this story, America initiates things and then the rest of the world responds. Then America responds and you repeat this process over and over.

"You see, America is at the center of everything. It's the American church and its concerns that count the most. Meanwhile, Anglicans around the world are trying to tell a different story."

Walking in St. Tikhon's footsteps

It didn't take long for controversy to spread about the photograph taken after the consecration rites in 1900 for a new bishop in Wisconsin. Low-church Episcopalians called it the "Fond du Lac Circus" because of all the ornate vestments. Not only was Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton, who presided, wearing a cope and mitre, but so were the other bishops. Then there were was the exotic visitor on the edge of the photograph -- Bishop Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Imagine the outrage if Tikhon had, as discussed beforehand, decided to take part in the laying on of hands at the moment of consecration. After years of service in America, the missionary later hailed as St. Tikhon of Moscow returned home and became patriarch, dying in 1925 after years of tensions with the new Communist regime.

St. Tikhon had "a vision, a vision of unity," said Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America, during recent events marking the birth of an alternative, conservative Anglican province in America. Early in the 20th century, some Orthodox leaders were willing to accept the "validity of Anglican orders," meaning they believed that Anglican clergy were truly priests and bishops in the ancient, traditional meanings of those words.

"It fell apart. It fell apart on the Anglican side, with the affirmation more of a Protestant identity than a Catholic identity," said Jonah, at the inaugural assembly of the Anglican Church in North America, held in Bedford, Texas.

"We need to pick up where they left off. The question has been: Does that Anglican church, which came so close to being declared by the other Orthodox churches a fellow Orthodox church, does that still exist?"

A voice in the crowd shouted, "It does!"

"Here, it does," agreed Metropolitan Jonah, stressing the word "here."

Thus, the Orthodox leader announced that he is willing to walk in St. Tikhon's footsteps by opening an ecumenical dialogue with this new body of conservative Anglicans, years after similar talks collapsed after the decision by Episcopalians to ordain women as priests and then as bishops.

The Orthodox and modern Episcopalians disagree on many other issues, from the authority of scripture to the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals as priests and bishops. These are the same issues that caused the creation of the conservative Anglican Church in North America, which has been recognized by many Anglican traditionalists in the Third World, but not by the hierarchy of the Church of England.

However, Jonah also focused attention on doctrinal issues that continue to cause tensions among the very conservatives he faced in Texas.

"I'm afraid my talk will have something to offend just about everybody," said the former Episcopalian, who was raised in an Anglo-Catholic parish before converting to Orthodoxy.

For example, "Calvinism is a condemned heresy," he said, and there are "other heresies that came in through the Reformation which have to be rejected" -- words that strike at the heart of the vital, growing Protestant wing of global Anglicanism. Jonah also stressed that, "For a full restoration and intercommunion of the Anglican Church with the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination of women has to be resolved." The Anglican Church in North America has agreed to allow its dioceses to reach their own conclusions on this issue.

The tension in the room was real, but so was the appreciation for this gesture by the man who, literally, is the successor of St. Tikhon, said the Rev. George Conger, a Calvinist Anglican and correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper.

"What made much of what Metropolitan Jonah said palatable to the ACNA convocation was his transparent good will, and wry sense of humor," said Conger. "The phrase 'hard words said in love' is often trite, but Jonah's remarks ... were given and heard in this vein."

One the other side of this dialogue, Orthodox leaders are more than aware of the obstacles created by decades of tumultuous change in the Anglican Communion, said Father Alexander Golubov, academic dean of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pa.

"Metropolitan Jonah will be trying to walk a thin line, but it is the same line that St. Tikhon tried to walk long ago," said Golubov. "Some of the issues he will face are the same. But there are issues he will face today that I do not believe anyone could have ever anticipated. We live in strange times."

Wink, wink pulpit wars

The political endorsement was clear, although the words were carefully chosen. New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop clearly wanted to inspire his supporters, even his own priests, to back Sen. Barack Obama. Still, he stressed that his endorsement was personal, not corporate.

''I will not be speaking about the campaign from the pulpit or at any church function,'' the bishop told reporters, in a 2007 conference call that drew low-key, calm news coverage. ''That is completely inappropriate. But as a private citizen, I will be at campaign events and help in any way that I can.''

The reaction was different after the Rev. Luke Emrich preached to about 100 evangelicals at New Life Church this past weekend, near Milwaukee. Veering from scripture into politics, he said his beliefs about abortion would control his vote.

"I'm telling you straight up, I would choose life," said Emrich, in a text that is being sent to the Internal Revenue Service. "I would cast a vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin. ... But friends, it's your choice to make, it's not my choice. I won't be in the voting booth with you."

Like the liberal Episcopal bishop, Emrich openly endorsed a candidate. And, like the bishop, he made it clear he was speaking for himself. The difference was that Emrich spoke from a pulpit, not a desk at the top of a church hierarchy.

Legal or illegal? That's a matter of location, location, location.

Emrich is one of 33 pastors nationwide who signed up for "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," an attempt by the Alliance Defense Fund to challenge IRS code language that says nonprofit, tax-exempt entities -- including churches -- may not "participate in, or intervene in ... any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."

While all the sermons during this initiative mentioned candidates, some of the ministers used different approaches, said Erik Stanley, the Alliance Defense Fund's senior legal counsel. The organization is voluntarily sending the sermons to the IRS.

"We did not mandate for these pastors what they should or shouldn't say. We didn't write the sermons," he said. "I know that we had pastors who said, 'I would not vote for so and so.' I know others said, 'I urge you not to vote for so and so.' Some said, 'I plan to vote for so and so, but I'm only speaking for myself.' "

There's the rub. For decades, many clerics -- liberal and conservative -- have practiced a variety of wink-wink endorsement strategies. For example:

* Supporters of abortion rights have long challenged the "Respect Life Sunday" events in Catholic parishes in early October. However, some priests use this day to stress Vatican pronouncements on the uniquely evil nature of abortion, which can be seen as a nod to Republicans. Meanwhile, other priests proclaim a broader "Culture of Life" agenda, stressing health care, the environment and issues that may favor Democrats.

* Some clergy, in a various ethnic churches and doctrinal camps, have invited politicians into services, where they are openly embraced and honored them with cheers that "this candidate is one of us." The congregation applauds and shouts "amen." Is this an endorsement?

* Pastors may deliver sermons that stick to a moral or religious issue and then say that it's sinful to support politicians -- while avoiding names -- who violate what the pastor says is the biblical stand on that issue. In this case, it doesn't matter if the issue being discussed is the war in Iraq, abortion, immigration or gay rights.

* Some religious leaders merely "recommend" candidates, rather than offering explicit "endorsements."

Finally, what if an endorsement is delivered from an office at the heart of a sacred bureaucracy, rather than from the pulpit in a sanctuary?

There's the big question, said Stanley. When do winks and nods become illegal? Are the rules applied the same way for liberals and conservatives?

"This is what we're trying to find out," he said. "How is a pastor supposed to know what he can and cannot do? Many pastors are afraid of crossing some line out there and they censor themselves, because they don't know exactly where it is. They want to address these great moral issues from a biblical perspective, but they don't know how far the IRS will let them go."

Dueling Anglican pulpits

There is nothing new about Anglicans worrying about the environment.

One of the Church of England's most famous hymns, after all, offers this somber vision of industrialization from poet William Blake: "And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills?"

Nevertheless, a recent sermon by the U.S. Episcopal Church's outspoken leader raised eyebrows as it circulated in cyberspace. Some traditionalists were not amused by a bookish discussion of bovine flatulence on the holiest day in the Christian year.

In her Easter message, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori stressed that all Christians should let their faith shape their actions in real life and, thus, affect the world around them.

"How can you be the sacrament, the outward and visible sign, of the grace that you know in the resurrected Christ? How can your living let others live more abundantly?" she asked, before turning to environmental concerns.

"We are beginning to be aware of the ways in which our lack of concern for the rest of creation results in death and destruction for our neighbors," added Jefferts Schori, who has a doctorate in oceanography. "We cannot love our neighbors unless we care for the creation that supports all our earthly lives. ...

"When atmospheric warming, due in part to the methane output of the millions of cows we raise each year to produce hamburger, begins to slowly drown the island homes of our neighbors in the South Pacific, are we truly sharing good news?"

This short sermon seemed to focus more on affirming the doctrines of Al Gore than on proclaiming the reality of the Resurrection, said Father Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and editor of The Anglican Digest. This is regrettable, since it's crucial for the modern church to do more to help protect the environment. This concern is, in fact, linked to Easter and to the ultimate hope for the renewing of God's creation, he said.

"The problem isn't so much what the presiding bishop said in this sermon, but what she all but left out of it," said Harmon. "The emphasis is totally on this one ethical dimension of our faith. ... That's important, but she didn't really connect it to what is the most important reality of all for Christians, which is that Jesus truly is risen from the dead and that really happened in time and in history and that changes everything -- literally everything."

On the other side of the Anglican aisle, the Easter message offered by the leader of a controversial missionary movement also addressed social issues, but did so after a strong affirmation of a literal resurrection.

Then, Bishop Martyn Minns linked the doctrine of the empty tomb to the church's belief that miracles continue today.

"I have seen it. I have seen men and women who were dead to the things of God come alive -- I have seen blind people be given their sight and I have seen sick people made well," said Minns, who leads the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. This is a network of conservative churches that have fled the Episcopal Church and are now linked to the Anglican Church of Nigeria.

"I have known people who were locked into patterns of abuse and addiction set free. ... I have witnessed broken marriages made whole and children who were lost brought back home."

It's crucial to note that these very different bishops begin with references to the Resurrection -- expressed in different ways -- and then build on that doctrine to talk about issues in modern life, noted Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopalian best known for writing "God Talk in America" and other books on spirituality and culture.

The bishops do have different reference points, she said.

Jefferts Schori seems to be "starting inside the church" and then saying, "Look out there. Look at the world and see what we need to go and do." Meanwhile, Minns is "starting inside the church" and then saying, "Come in here. This is what happens when the church is really alive."

The sad reality in Anglicanism today, she said, "Is that both of these leaders are talking to their people, to the people that they lead, but they are no longer part of the same body."

Invading Anglican closets

The historic Trinity Episcopal Church offers clear online guidance to those seeking a Blessing of Holy Union in its sanctuary on Boston's Copley Square.

The services are based on "A Rite for the Celebration of Commitment to a Life Together" which is used in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

"A priest may bless a same-sex civil marriage or preside at and bless a same-sex union. ... The same liturgical rite is used," say the guidelines. "In the presence of God and the couple's Christian community, the rite includes a declaration of the couple's intent to join their lives together and a celebration of their commitment to a life together."

This is precisely the kind of rite that has infuriated so many conservatives in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

But the sound that Anglican insiders heard the other day was nervous coughing in England. U.S. Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori has decided not to let gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the mother church sit safely on the sidelines while traditionalists take shots at her flock.

What about those same-sex union rites?

"Those services are happening in various places, including in the Church of England, where my understanding is that there are far more of them happening than there are in the Episcopal Church," she recently told the BBC.

What about New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, a gay man who is living in a same-sex relationship? According to Jefferts Schori, Robinson is under attack for being honest.

Bishop Robison, she said, is "certainly not alone in being a gay bishop, he's certainly not alone in being a gay partnered bishop. He is alone in being the only gay partnered bishop who's open about that status. ... There's certainly a double standard."

What we have here is an attempt to pull British bishops out and into open combat with conservatives in Africa, South America, Asia and other parts of the 70-million-member Anglican Communion. The presiding bishop has played the England card in a high-stakes game of ecclesiastical poker inside the Church of England.

The tensions were already rising, as Canterbury prepares for its once-a-decade global Lambeth Conference of bishops, this coming July 20-Aug. 3. Conservatives are planning their own Global Anglican Future Conference, June 15-22 in Jerusalem.

Thus, it was symbolic that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently presided at a closed-door Eucharist in London for the Clergy Consultation, a support network for gay Anglican clergy, seminarians, monks and nuns. The Times of London offered this detail: "Secrecy was so tight that a list of names attending was sent to Lambeth Palace with orders that it be shredded as soon as Dr. Williams had read it."

Meanwhile, a few liberal activists have focused on the leader of the one U.S. diocese that has -- so far -- voted to cut its ties to the national church.

Citing a disputed interview from more than a decade ago, backed with hostile testimonies, blogger Lisa Fox of Jefferson City, Mo., claims that San Joaquin Bishop John-David Schofield has repeatedly "outed" himself as an ex-homosexual.

Yes, it's time to publish names, Fox said.

"When a cleric uses his closet as a sniper's nest, he deserves to have a light directed upon his deceit and duplicity," wrote Fox, at her "My Manner of Life" weblog. "For the life of me, I still do not know how those gay-lesbian bishops -- especially the ones on the 'progressive' side of the spectrum -- can look themselves in the mirror each day."

Schofield, meanwhile, insists that he has been misquoted. The 69-year-old bishop does have an unusual background, since he has both taken a monastic vow of celibacy and been a leader in the charismatic renewal movement, with its emphasis on spiritual gifts such as healing and prophecy. He also supports ministries for those who struggle with sexual-orientation issues.

"I always thought I would be married," the bishop told Virtueonline.org. "In my early days of the priesthood, I was an Oblate of Mount Calvary that required annual vows be renewed. By 1966, I was convinced that married life was for me. On November 17, 1966, however, in a life-changing encounter with the Lord, I responded to his request to live a single life for Him."

Schofield also answered the question that others will soon face.

"I am not a homosexual," he said. "I have never been in the homosexual lifestyle."