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Originally published July 9, 2009 at 4:30 PM | Page modified July 10, 2009 at 9:02 AM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

The Episcopal Church wrestles with its future

Historic ties between the U.S. Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion are in play as the church holds its General Convention in Anaheim, Calif. This session, held every three years, will be closely watched by all faith groups.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

If the Episcopal Church wants its 76th General Convention to be complete, it will lob in revisions to the Book of Common Prayer and the 1982 Hymnal. Why leave out any excuse for a fight?

Episcopal bishops, clergy and laity have been meeting every three years or so since 1785. The convention in Anaheim, Calif., may produce headlines about an extended moratorium on consecrating any more gay bishops or creating rituals to bless same-sex marriages.

Beyond the pyrotechnics, the gathering is very much a business meeting of a national organization with a plummeting membership and dwindling income. Budgets will be slashed and 800 pages of resolutions romped through by two legislative chambers.

Outcomes will be closely watched by the wider religious community because institutional soul searching is hardly unique to Episcopalians.

Religious connections are fading in America. This past spring, I wrote about the latest round of a continuing survey of personal identification with faith groups. The most dramatic growth is among respondents who choose "None." Pick a group — brand name or not, liberal or conservative — their numbers are dropping.

For Episcopalians the tension is played out on two levels: in hometown parishes and across the globe. The church is one of 44 provinces and churches in the Anglican Communion, with 80 million members. Membership is declining in America, and growing in Africa and Latin America. The Episcopal Church is at risk of "losing the franchise as the Anglican presence in America," observes the Rev. Dan Martins, of Warsaw, Ind.

Historically, the Anglican Communion is grounded in the Church of England and the path of the Union Jack around the world. The members are interdependent but autonomous. In 1998, the religious body voted that gay sex was not compatible with Scripture. In 2003, the Episcopal Church consecrated a gay bishop in New Hampshire. The subsequent election of a female to lead the U.S. church as presiding bishop further stoked ecclesiastical blood pressure.

Two-thirds of the provinces in the Anglican Communion broke with the U.S. church over the gay bishop, and parishes and dioceses around the country rebelled. An estimated 100,000 members fled.

One result was the creation in June of the Anglican Church in North America — conceivably the rival for that Anglican franchise.

Episcopalians and Anglicans finessed the tension for years, as they worked to find a formula that "expresses a loyalty grounded in mutuality."

The Windsor Report 2004 begot the Ridley Cambridge Covenant Draft Text, which proposes to limit participation in the Anglican Communion if a member refuses to defer controversial action. Martins drafted a resolution that adopts the language while the issue is studied until 2012. A panel is already studying gays and theology. Member identity is secret.

One has to wonder what is preserved for the American church by continued Anglican affiliation, as treasured as that has been. What is valued in unity that trumps the faith of believers excluded from sacramental blessings and church leadership?

Bishop Gregory Rickel, of the Diocese of Olympia covering Western Washington, sees a bigger picture for the church. He wants Anglican ties to survive because, "we do better together." He is also mindful that "the resolutions and legislative process are not going to change our hearts or change our church."

He notes the official agenda has no topics that touch young lives, and he wonders aloud about the best use of church resources with an eye toward the next generation.

For young people, gay issues are not an issue, the bishop said, "they get it."

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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