As worldwide Anglican leaders gathered in Tanzania Wednesday, a major topic on the agenda is the growing rift among Episcopalians in the United States. The presiding American bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is invited. But her status as the U.S. church's first female leader, and her support for its increasing acceptance of homosexuality, are at odds with many top Anglican leaders.
Anglicans and their American brothers and sisters the Episcopalians, talk a lot about coming to the table. It's a reference to Jesus' last supper and the sacred ritual of communion, but it also reflects the Anglican tradition of sitting down with people who disagree. That's what is supposed to happen in Tanzania this week as U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori makes her first appearance at the meeting of the top Anglican bishops, or primates.
"Having a woman sitting at the table of the primates is a very significant and new reality for the communion," said Ian Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
But it's not just her gender that's making waves. To many Anglican leaders, Jefferts Schori represents all that is wrong with the Episcopal church in America. Some bishops say the U.S. church's endorsement of a gay bishop is akin to heresy, and her interpretation of the Bible too liberal. There is speculation some bishops may refuse to join her at the table.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has taken the extraordinary step of inviting Jefferts Schori's biggest American rival, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh.
The Episcopal Church within the United States is in fact two churches, with two voices, and Canterbury's recognition was that both voices need to be heard," Duncan said.
Duncan represents roughly 300 congregations in the United States that have broken away from the mainstream church. That's about 10 percent of the overall membership of the Episcopal church.
The division in the American church is so deep, and the issues so controversial, that Duncan and Jefferts Schori haven't even spoken directly since before she was elected last June.
"Clearly the tension is very strong right now," said Bishop Chris Epting, one of Jefferts Schori's deputies. "I think we are in a sense testing the limits of this communion and how it functions together."
Epting said Episcopalians remain committed to finding a way to keep the conservative flock in the fold, despite disagreements about the role of gay people in the church.
"We hope that it is not church-dividing, that it is an issue we can continue to struggle with together, but do it together because we need each other's perspectives," Epting said.
Some in Dar es Salaam, where the Anglican conference is taking place, are talking about creating an additional primate in the United States, essentially splitting the American church in two.
Religious scholars say that's a long shot, but Episcopalians are still keeping a close eye on developments in Tanzania.