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Bishops of the Episcopal Church are in New Orleans tackling a job that may need divine intervention. They're trying to remain progressive on issues about homosexuality and still avert schism. The church caused an uproar four years ago by consecrating an openly gay bishop. The American Church has a September 30th deadline to placate the conservatives in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It was a little like watching a movie you've already seen, going by frame-by-frame. You know what will happen, and it's so agonizingly slow. The clear majority of the Episcopal bishops support consecrating openly gay bishops. And many others already perform same-sex blessings. And yet they met hour-after-hour in a downtown hotel, quibbling over the wording of a statement that might please conservatives.

It's a tough sell. Conservative Anglicans from Africa and South America, who represent the vast majority of the 77 million member worldwide church, have threatened to essentially begin their own church unless the Episcopal Church comes in line.

At the end of the day, the bishops emerged with nothing to show, but Bishop J. Neil Alexander of Atlanta was optimistic that by this afternoon they would produce a winning document.

NEIL ALEXANDER: My own feeling is that the statement will be shaped in such a way that it will be well received by the leaders of the Anglican Communion, and it will also be well received by the majority of members of the Episcopal Church.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That remains to be seen. According to several sources, the bishops have agreed on the content, which is unlikely to appease conservatives. They will reportedly reiterate that they will show restraint in consecrating openly gay bishops, but they won't rule it out altogether.

They may say they won't officially perform same-sex blessings, yet nearly a dozen dioceses openly permit them. And they will back a proposal that would let the presiding bishop appoint a few bishops to be ambassadors to the unhappy conservative congregations. But that falls far short of the independent oversight conservatives had wanted.

ALEXANDER: no.

ROBERT DUNCAN: Unless it were to come back, it's hard to imagine how you can hold it together.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Duncan says the chasm has become so wide, not just on issues of homosexuality, but the interpretation of the Bible and the direction of the church, that the two sides have little in common.

DUNCAN: Those two understandings are so radically different that they lead to two gospels, and they in fact lead to two churches.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: At least four diocese are considering leaving the American church and aligning with African or Latin-American bishops. Those include Duncan's of Pittsburgh, as well as Fort Worth, Quincy, Illinois and San Joaquin, California.

While more than 50 churches have left, no diocese has taken that step. So will the church ever agree to conservatives' demands and rethink its stance on gays in the church?

JOHN BRUNO: I don't believe that we'll ever turn back the clock.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's bishop John Bruno of Los Angeles.

BRUNO: Are we going to withdraw our support of gay and lesbian people in the church? No, we're not going to withdraw our support of gay and lesbian people in the church. They're fully enfranchised members of our body. Are we going to do anything that will exacerbate this situation? No. I don't think we will. We're waiting to see how our response will be received.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: They'll vote on that response today, and the future of the Episcopal Church hangs on the outcome.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News, New Orleans.

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