IN THE PRIESTHOOD OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH, the Reverend Canon David H. Roseberry has long been considered something of a prodigy. In 1985 he founded Christ Church in a Plano home with a mere 13 people and quickly built it into a powerhouse with 4,400 members and a 500-student Sunday school. It has the largest average Episcopal church attendance in America and is the most successful start-up in the denomination’s history. It is also deeply conservative, heavily tilted toward Scripture, and determinedly evangelical. In its striking growth, its many successful outreach programs, and its broad community involvement, Christ Church is precisely what the national church, whose membership has been steadily declining for the past forty years, aspires to be.
But on Sunday, August 10, 2003, Roseberry stood in the pulpit of his vaulted limestone sanctuary and delivered a rhetorical cruise missile directed at the heart of his denomination. Five days earlier, bishops from 107 dioceses at the church’s triennial General Convention, in Minneapolis, had voted to consecrate the ordination of a homosexual bishop named V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire and to approve the blessing of same-sex unions. To Roseberry, this meant that the church had ignored the Bible and thus, on this issue, had abandoned the Christian faith. “In two days, in two votes by less than six hundred people, 4,500 years of Biblical teaching and tradition were overturned,” he told the congregation. Then he explained why he had walked off the convention floor in protest. “I wanted to send the very clearest, least ambiguous signal to you that I will not be pushed or pulled into an apostate church. I can’t do it. These things are too important to me, and it’s too much of a violation of what I believe and hold sacred.” He received a standing ovation that lasted almost a full minute.
In the weeks that followed, Roseberry became one of the main organizers of an unprecedented revolt against the national church. It began in conservative parishes like Christ Church and in dioceses like Dallas, Fort Worth, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and quickly spread through the global Anglican communion. (The Episcopal Church is the American name of the Anglican Church, which was created by Henry VIII after he split with the Roman Catholic Church, in 1534; Anglican churches now operate in 164 countries and have 73 million members.) Episcopalians suddenly found themselves in the middle of a bloody, media-fueled political fight. The church had long tolerated the presence of gay priests, and some bishops had been ordaining openly gay priests and deacons since the eighties. But to many members, a gay bishop was unthinkable. Conservative parishes announced that they were leaving the denomination and were promptly sued by their dioceses for their land and buildings. Some congregations just walked away, en masse, from their property. Whole dioceses and hundreds of parishes announced that they would no longer give money to the national church. In Texas, the home of some of the church’s most conservative clergy, the backlash was especially severe. All of its five bishops had voted against Robinson; four of them publicly condemned the vote. “As faithful Episcopalians, we grieve with other Christians who are shocked and offended by these decisions,” wrote Fort Worth bishop Jack Leo Iker in a furious pastoral letter that his 56 vicars and rectors were ordered to read aloud from the pulpit.
At St. Michael’s Church in Richland Hills, in Iker’s diocese, the rector threw the flag of the national church on the ground and then walked on it in protest. In March six conservative retired bishops, led by former Diocese of Texas bishop Maurice Benitez, broke canon law by holding confirmations in Ohio without the permission of the bishop there; the confirmands had refused to be blessed by a bishop who voted for Robinson. (To a lesser extent, the same thing is happening in other protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian and Methodist churches; but they have had nothing like an official endorsement of a gay bishop.)
The most telling event in the conflict was an October meeting of the Episcopal Church’s leading dissidents, called by Roseberry and organized by Christ Church. Roseberry was in a unique position: He led a congregation that was more uniformly conservative than perhaps any other in the nation, and he was ensconced in what was certifiably one of the most conservative dioceses in the country—Dallas. He had initially expected to draw 200 to 300 people. To his amazement, he got 2,800, including, stunningly, 40 bishops among 900 clergymen. The meeting was so large that it had to be moved from Christ Church to the Wyndham Anatole Hotel, in Dallas, and it quickly showed the rest of the world the depth and strength of the conservative protest. “It was an exclamation point in the life of the Episcopal Church,” says Roseberry. “We were saying, ‘Wow, this is the defining moment for all of us.’”
That led to another meeting, in January, again organized by Roseberry’s church and this time held on its campus. There the simmering dissent of October turned to incipient schism. Thirteen bishops and representatives from twelve dioceses around the country (including Dallas and Fort Worth) and various conservative parishes formed an alliance representing some 10 percent of the church. They called it the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (known as the Network). Their purpose was to form a sort of church within the church, with its own “moderator” and a missionary focus. The Network would resist the ordination of gays and minister to the conservative congregations who now refused to take communion with presiding bishop Frank Griswold, the head of the church—or to even have him visit their churches. Such a deliberate challenge to Episcopal leadership was without precedent, and it convinced many in the clergy and the laity that sooner or later the church would shatter on a scale unseen in its 215-year history.
The problem extends well beyond the borders of the United States. The larger, and starker, truth of the American rebellion