MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Sex, racy text messages, an illicit wedding ceremony, and maybe a messy divorce; it sounds like a TV soup opera, but no, it comes courtesy of the Anglican Communion and it all figures into a meeting next week that could determine the future of the world's third largest Christian denomination.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: On May 31st, dozens of guests filed into St. Bartholomew the Great, the London church immortalized in the movie "Four Weddings and a Funeral."
Giles Fraser, an Anglican vicar who was not there but knows the details, says it looked just like an elegant wedding.
Mr. GILES FRASER (Anglican Vicar): They're all in their smart clothes and they had best men with them. They exchange rings, they exchange vows.
HAGERTY: Vows that came almost word for word from the wedding service in the 1662 "Book of Common Prayer."
Mr. FRASER: In a sense, it was an incredibly traditional service except for one thing and that was there were two men who were being joined, as it were.
HAGERTY: Two Anglican priests, to be precise. Now, there are a good number of gay British clergy who have celebrated their unions - always quietly, because the Church of England discourages same-sex blessings. But this extravagant celebration in one of London's oldest churches - well, it was too much. The press went wild.
The blessing was performed by Rev. Martin Dudley. In a BBC interview, he told how the ceremony came about. It all started, he said, with a visit from his friend and fellow vicar Peter Cowell.
Reverend MARTIN DUDLEY: I remember we were setting up the Christmas crib as he turned up and said he had a question to ask me. And he asked me whether I would be prepared to bless him and David. Now, what do you say to friend in a situation like that?
Unidentified Man: Well, presumably what you say as a minister of the Church of England with the house of bishops' instruction...
HAGERTY: And it wasn't just the event that made the story so delicious. Dudley himself is no stranger to scandal. He was nicknamed Dud the Stud for sending romantic text messages to a female parishioner a few years back. And then there's the timing. The near wedding took place weeks before Anglican bishops from around the world arrive in England for its Lambeth Conference, a once-every-10-year meeting when the bishops chart policy on issues like, well, gay clergy.
Archbishop HENRY OROMBI (Anglican Archbishop of Uganda): It is a bit ironic.
HAGERTY: Henry Orombi is the Anglican archbishop of Uganda, which claims 9.2 million members. Most African, Asian and Latin American leaders were outraged when Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, was elevated to bishop of New Hampshire five years ago. The Archbishop of Canterbury, titular head of the communion, tried to keep it from falling apart, pleading with the West to stop same-sex ceremonies. Orombi wonders how he can reign in the other churches when things like this happen under his own nose.
Archbishop OROMBI: I think the truth has come out. The mother church, if I want to call it that way, is already in the same problem. Now, which way is the communion going? And we are asking ourselves and saying, that is a reflection of how very far from biblical teaching and understanding, as it were, even the Church of England has gone.
HAGERTY: Orombi says it's just one more reason why he is boycotting the Lambeth Conference. And it's not just he but also the bishops of Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda, who together represent almost two-thirds of the practicing Anglicans in the world.
Archbishop Greg Venables, who oversees most of South America, says the debate is not about homosexuality, it's about the role of the Bible. Conservatives say God's word is unchanging and above culture. Liberals say the Bible should be read with culture - and the growing number of gay Anglicans - in mind.
Archbishop GREG VENABLES: You've got original Christianity as it's been believed over 2,000 years, and this new postmodern version which has grown up in the West. So in terms of what we believe, you've already got two - I won't say two churches, because I'm not sure that's what - but there is definitely a split.
HAGERTY: And schism is on the minds of the nearly 300 conservative bishops, who will gather in Jerusalem next week to chart their own orthodox future. John Chane, the liberal bishop of Washington, D.C., is not worried.
Bishop JOHN CHANE: To me, it's almost as if it was a death rattle. I think that the Anglican Communion, even with the internal disagreements that it has right now, really wants to move on, not to ignore the differences, but to really get on with living in what does it mean to be a missional church in the 21st century?
HAGERTY: A few conservative bishops are going to Lambeth in a last ditch effort to keep the communion together. But, one says, I'm not holding my breath.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.