When the Vatican refused to allow Henry VIII to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, the king abandoned Roman Catholicism and created the Church of England, a self-governing community of Christian worshipers that has since grown into a worldwide Anglican Communion of 77 million members and 38 independent provinces, like the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA). But the absence of a unified hierarchy is making possible a schism that threatens to break apart the church: a commission, convened in 2003 in the wake of ECUSA's decision to consecrate a gay bishop, last week released the Windsor Report, a document that strongly encourages bishops on both sides of the issue to express regret, and places a moratorium on ordaining gay bishops in same-sex relationships and giving ritual blessings to same-sex couples. While some ECUSA leaders expressed optimism that the commission called for a moratorium (and not an outright ban), conservative leaders like Nigeria's Archbishop Peter Akinola voiced outrage that the commission failed to issue a direct prohibition. "Where is the language of rebuke for those who are promoting sexual sins as holy and acceptable behavior?" he said.
Although the current dispute is in many ways similar to the conflict experienced after ECUSA began ordaining women in the mid-1970s, some conservative U.S. congregations recently took the extraordinary step of renouncing their association with ECUSA, instead becoming missionary outposts under authority of foreign bishops. (Three congregations in Los Angeles say they've seceded from the L.A. diocese and are now affiliated with the province of Uganda; two parishes in Olympia, Wash., sought pastoral oversight from Recife, Brazil.) The Windsor Report says this violates an ancient principle that each bishop governs only his own diocese. Akinola vows that unless American leaders "repent," the worldwide Anglican community "shall have to begin to learn to walk apart." Prior to his divorce, Henry VIII earned the title "Defender of the Faith." It's unclear which, if any, bishops are heir to that throne.