The House of Bishops of the Episcopal church, which set out a week ago to heal the divisions in the church, has raised the question of whether the church can survive the cures it has applied.
Disagreement in the 2.9-million-member church is rooted in the decision of the church's General Convention last year to approve ordination of women to the priesthood, which the bishops themselves approved 95 to 61. Dissidents have launched a movement to woo those who do not believe that the ordination of women is right away from the Episcopal church into a separatist denomination yet to be constituted.
To date, fewer than 20 of the church's more than 7,000 parishes in this country have formally broken away, though substantial numbers of priests and lay members disagree with the national church policy. But the dissent of this minority dominates the deliberations of the meeting of bishops here that ended today.
Each move the bishops made to remedy the problem seems to have produced a disturbing reaction:
In an effort to reconcile the rebels, presiding Bishop John Maury Allin announced here for the first time his own opposition to women priests. His statement drew cries of anguish from women and men all over the country who agreed with the idea of women priests and who had remained loyal to the church in the long battle, victorious only last year, for acceptance of women.
The bishop acceded to Allin's demand that they reaffirm his leadership despite his disagreeing with church law. Individual bishops who differed sharply with the presiding bishop's stand said they voted to reaffirm rather than subject the already-battered church to the kind of controversy that the unsealing of a presiding bishop would entail. But word of their action stepped up the volume of telegrams and telephoned protests from concerned church members back home.
The bishops adopted a "conscience clause" affirming that one could remain a "good Episcopalian" and still disagree with ordaining women to the priesthood, even to the point of "abstaining from implementing the decision."
But dissident Episcopalians, who the conscience clause was supposed to bind closer to the fold, found unexpected loopholes. One bishop asked advice on how to deal with one of his dissident priests who called the bishop to say that his conscience would exempt him from making any future financial contributions from his parish to a church which ordains women.
"We are on the edge of lawlessness," Suffragan Bishop J. Stuart Wetmore of New York warned the other bishops. "Never again will this House (of Bishops) be able to discipline any of its members on any question."
Beneath its rich and colorful ecclesiastical garments, the Episcopal church is an intensely political organism. The ambiguities and anachronisms of its political structure are at the root of some of its problems today.
The church's decision-making body, the General Convention, is like Congress, made up of two houses: The House of Bishops, which holds annual meetings such as the one winding up here, and the House of Deputies.
There are 93 Episcopal dioceses, or geographical jurisdictions, in the United States, each headed by a bishop. Unlike Congress, the church's decision-making structure makes no provision for proportional representation. The Diocese of Massachusetts with its 112,000 members sends the same number of deputies to General Convention as the Diocese of Eau Claire with its 3,799 members.
The same is true for the House of Bishops, although some of the larger dioceses may also have a suffragan, or assistant bishop, who is also a member of the House.
There are 15 dioceses in the church with more than 50,000 members. Clustered largely in the big urban centers of the West Coast and eastern seaboard, these dioceses provided the bulk of the national church's membership - and its budget.
But they are regularly outvoted by the much larger number of small dioceses throughout the South and Midwest, areas of the country that tend toward more conservative traditional ideas in religion and morality as well as in politics.
It was this portion of the church which four years ago elected Allin, at the time the Bishop of Mississippi, as presiding bishop in a hotly contested election by a 3 one-vote margin. The genial, corncob-pipe-smoking bishop who cultivates the good old boy image in his speech and mannerisms, is not a man to forget his origins or friends.
In addition, Allin received the mantle of leadership from the right Rev. John Hines, a Southern liberal activist who had led his church into the thick of the civil rights struggle and opposition to the Vietnam war. Under Hines' leadership, the church raised millions of dollars to fight for civil rights but it generated serious social controversy both in and out of the pews. Allin came to office on the crest of a conservative backlash.
Since the days of Queen Elizabeth I, strict uniformity of belief has traditionally not been a concern of the Anglican Church, of the which the Episcopal Church is the American branch. The church has prided itself on embracing high church "Catholics" and low church "Protestants" in what it likes to refers to "dynamic tension." But the church's bishops are viewed as important symbols of unity. For the presiding bishop to disagree publicly with the expressed will of the church on an issue as visible as the question of women priests may pose a much more serious threat to unity than the splintering off of a handful of dissidents.