PLANO, Texas (AP) – Conservative Episcopalians are gathering Monday to establish an unprecedented nationwide organization to unite opponents of last year’s consecration of their denomination’s first openly gay bishop.

Activists say the new Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes won’t be a breakaway denomination or schism but rather a “church within a church.”

Nonetheless, it’s a potentially serious challenge to Episcopal Church leaders.

The two-day meeting to form the network involves bishops, clergy and lay delegates from 12 dioceses representing 235,000 members, a tenth of the nation’s Episcopalians.

The network’s temporary leader, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, says the meeting will give the denomination’s traditionalist wing “some sense there is a future.”

The American Anglican Council, which helped organize the group, has denied that the network’s goal is to be a replacement for the Episcopal Church.

Council activists say the network will be a “church within a church,” not a breakaway denomination or schism.

Delegates at the meeting plan to adopt an organizational charter, elect leaders and debate how to help conservatives in liberal dioceses. Observers and reporters are barred from the meeting.

The network has been tightlipped about most details, including who wrote the charter draft and what it proposes. Plans were fashioned up to the last minute.

Some leaders in the church have spoken out against the group, including Bishop Don Johnson of Memphis, Tenn. He vowed to work against those he says want to “sabotage” and “destroy” the church.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the international Anglican Communion – bodies which trace their heritage back to the Church of England. Many national Anglican churches have denounced or broken fellowship with the Episcopal Church over the consecration last November of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay cleric, as bishop of New Hampshire.

Still, one of the reasons conservative parishes won’t bolt is that under secular law they usually surrender their properties to the denomination. The Rev. Donald Armstrong from Colorado Springs, Colo., a delegate representing midwestern and mountain states, says “we’ve got a $12 million facility and we can’t just walk away from it.”

The Episcopal Church’s national leader, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, has proposed a plan for special visiting bishops to minister to conservative parishes. American Anglican Council leaders have rejected Griswold’s system, however, because decisions would rest with liberal bishops they distrust.

Various congregations in 37 U.S. Episcopal dioceses have applied for leadership from special conservative bishops sent by the network. An ecclesiastical tangle would result if network bishops defy church law and work in a diocese without permission from the local bishop.

Last week’s leaked memo said “widespread” disobedience of church law “may be necessary” and conservatives should be prepared to risk trials in church or secular courts.

However, the host bishop for this meeting, James Stanton of Dallas, opposes such lawbreaking. He hopes a positive tone will gain further support among the 43 Episcopal bishops who voted against the elevation of Robinson. (Sixty-two bishops backed Robinson.)

But Stanton says calling the network schismatic “gets things exactly backwards” because “the act of schism” was the national denomination’s approval for Robinson.

Many overseas Anglican churches have broken ties with the Episcopal Church since Robinson’s consecration. Armstrong says the network “will become the organization by which the Anglican Communion will continue to have a presence in the United States.”

Traditionally, Anglican churches are defined by recognition from the world Anglican leader, England’s archbishop of Canterbury, and it’s anyone’s guess what incumbent Rowan Williams might eventually decide about the American mess.

But Jim Naughton, communications director for the Washington (D.C.) Diocese, is confident Williams will maintain ties with the ongoing Episcopal Church:

“It’s hard to imagine him just tossing us out.”

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AP-ES-01-18-04 1601EST

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