Liberal Episcopalians prepare for possible split over gays

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Liberal Episcopalians, concerned that a split over homosexuality may be inevitable next year, have begun laying the groundwork for seizing control of church property and replacing bishops who leave the church.

Leaders of Via Media, a loosely knit alliance of liberal groups in 12 conservative dioceses that does not include the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, sketched out the plan in a Sept. 29 meeting in Dallas. Draft minutes from the meeting were leaked to the news media this week.

The ''Day After'' blueprint - combined with conservative plans for ''faithful disobedience'' and bishops who are already mulling ways to divide property - is the latest indication that all sides are preparing for a battle royal when the church meets next summer in Columbus, Ohio.

''We want to do everything that might be necessary and appropriate to make sure that every Episcopalian who wants an Episcopal church has one,'' said Christopher Wilkins, the national facilitator for Via Media.

The 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church has weathered deep divisions at home and with other Anglican churches abroad since 2003, when it approved an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire and inched toward blessing same-sex unions.

Conservatives have looked to allies in the Third World for guidance, and have predicted a ''realignment'' of Anglicanism in North America unless the U.S. and Canadian churches repent of their actions.

Wilkins and other Via Media officials insist their ideas are just a contingency plan that they hope they will never have to use. They said they will not ''oust'' any sitting bishop, but want to protect their churches.

Via Media leaders say they have not consulted with Episcopal Church headquarters on their plans.

Conservatives, meanwhile, say the leaked plan exposes the hostility toward traditionalists who oppose openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson and the church's growing acceptance of homosexuality.

''I do find it troubling that they would feel a need to have these kinds of talks about how to wield power in such a ruthless manner at this stage,'' said Douglas LeBlanc, spokesman for the conservative Anglican Communion Network.

The Anglican Communion Network is headed by Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, and includes like-minded bishops in Dallas; Albany, N.Y.; Orlando, Fla.; Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Ill.; Albuquerque, N.M.; San Joaquin, Calif.; South Carolina and Springfield, Ill. Most Via Media groups are in those same dioceses.

The plan assumes that conservative bishops in the network would leave next summer's General Convention unsatisfied and try to take their dioceses out of the church. Then it would look like this:

l Liberals would be ready to file canonical complaints that the bishops have abandoned the communion of the church.

l Liberals would then ask that each bishop's office be declared empty, and ask the church's presiding bishop to appoint someone to fill it.

l Vacant spots in the church's leadership structure would also need to be filled, and finances, deeds and other documents secured.

l The liberal remnant would need to ''be ready to take legal action on property'' to ensure that parish buildings and assets remain in the denomination.

Lionel Deimel, president of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh, one of the Via Media groups, said the leaked minutes have unleashed a ''tempest in a teapot,'' but liberals take the threat of schism seriously.

''If a bishop is going to try to take a diocese out of the Episcopal Church - which [church law] says he cannot do - then Episcopalians, the people who own the property, are going to fight him on it,'' Deimel said.

Any threat of a split in the Beehive State, however, is improbable.

"It ain't happening in Utah," wrote the Rev. Daniel Webster, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, in response to an e-mail query. "Our diocese has not experienced the kind of division others have, nor do we have the need for a Via Media chapter here."


Salt Lake Tribune reporter Jessica Ravitz contributed to this story.