Martyn Minns recalls the moment he knew he had to leave the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It was 2005. He was rector of Truro Church in Fairfax, Va., and he was talking with a young family who told him they could no longer attend a church that accepted gay bishops or diverged from what they called Orthodox Christianity.
"As I looked at them, I realized that I had a decision to make," he says. "Either I moved with them into a rather uncertain future, or I lost the heart of the congregation. So for me it was a matter of, 'Do I want the church of the future, or the church of the past?' "
Soon after that, Minns' church bolted from the American Episcopal Church and aligned itself with the conservative archbishop of the Anglican province of Nigeria. Now he and other church leaders representing more than 700 congregations, four dioceses and up to 100,000 churchgoers are meeting in Bedford, Texas. They hope to form a new Anglican province in the U.S. — one that would rival the Episcopal Church.
Mainline Church Irked, Not Worried
The Rev. Ryan Reed of St. Vincent's Cathedral, which is hosting the Bedford conference, says conservatives have tried to stay in the "big tent" of Anglicanism.
"The problem," Reed says, "is in the last 30 years, the boundaries of that tent, or those views, have expanded so far that you can find leadership in the Episcopal Church that is radically not Christian in terms of their understanding of the cross, the Resurrection, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of Scripture."
Reed says the Episcopal Church is following culture, not the Bible. When it ordained a gay bishop in 2003, he says, the conservatives finally decided to offer an alternative. That view irks — but does not worry — leaders in the mainline church.
"The folks that are gathering in Texas represent a small, conservative fringe within the Episcopal Church," says Susan Russell, a minister at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., and a leader in the church's gay rights movement.
"Their goal has been to vote the American Episcopal Church off the Anglican island," she says. "They failed at that over and over again, and now they're trying to re-create a new province in their own image."
Breakaway Province Unlikely To Be Recognized
Russell believes they won't succeed this time, either. For one thing, she says, they would probably need the approval of two-thirds of the 38 Anglican leaders around the world to create a separate Anglican province in the United States. Currently, only a handful of those leaders have signed on publicly. Plus, she says, leaders of the breakaway faction would need the recognition of the archbishop of Canterbury — and that hasn't happened.
"It would be as if Sarah Palin were to take a small, but vocal, percentage of very conservative Republicans and decide that they were going to create a parallel United States without having the White House at the center," Russell says.
George Pitcher, an Anglican priest at St. Bride's Anglican Church in London and religion editor at the Daily Telegraph, agrees. He says the communion welcomes conservative views.
But, he says, "when they want to say this is the one true way, and we want to impose it on all Anglicans, then it's at that stage that the broadly tolerant Anglican Communion says, 'Well that's not the way we do things.' "
Conservative Churches Growing
In the past, a number of conservative groups have left the worldwide communion over things like women's ordination or the prayer book. And they've shrunk into virtual irrelevance.
But this time, it might be different, says religion historian David L. Holmes at the College of William and Mary. He says the American conservatives have the backing of many leaders in Africa and South America, who represent more than half of all Anglicans worldwide.
Moreover, Holmes says, the Episcopal Church has shrunk 40 percent in little more than a generation, whereas these conservative churches are growing.
"My sense would be if the Episcopal Church continued to lose members in a striking way, and this new group kept gaining members, it would be a new ballgame," he says.
Minns says he is not expecting the conservatives will succeed overnight.
"I think it will take a while," he says. "These things normally do. These provinces take sometimes decades to be recognized, so we're not holding our breath on that."
But Minns does believe time, demographics and theology are on their side.