Episcopalians vote in coming days over blessing same-sex unions.
Amid the shifting climate for gay rights in North America, the Episcopal Church faces landmark decisions that could have a deep effect on its global faith community.
At their national convention, which begins Wednesday in Minneapolis, Episcopalians will decide whether to take the long-debated steps of blessing same-sex unions and approving openly gay clergy. Their choices threaten to split the US church and the worldwide Anglican Communion to which it belongs, as some leaders insist they would not accept such a change.
Most mainline Protestant churches have struggled with these questions for several years, with little resolution. The Episcopal Church has been more welcoming of gays than many faith communities, and some priests and bishops have quietly gone ahead to bless unions and ordain gay clergy. In June, the diocese of New Hampshire voted an openly gay man their next bishop.
But these steps have stirred turmoil across the Communion, which has 75 million members in 164 countries. Some bishops in the developing world - where great growth in the religion is occurring - have joined with US conservatives to oppose legitimizing such actions. Last week these leaders warned that if approved, the actions would "precipitate a dramatic realignment of the Church."
As the denomination has struggled with the issues, individual churches have faced difficult decisions. For example:
• Trinity Church in Boston, a high-profile congregation in the country's biggest Episcopal diocese, has an active gay community but has not blessed unions.
"It isn't easy to say we'll be fine here in our progressive bubble and wave goodbye to the rest of our historic community," says David Trueblood, Trinity spokesman. "On the one hand is the question of unity, and on the other, of leadership on what a lot of people see as the leading civil rights issue of our day."
• Church of Our Savior in Arlington, Mass., six years ago took the bold step of choosing a female pastor who was "out" and in a committed partnership.