Ever since 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay man as New Hampshire's bishop, it has been under fire from conservative Anglicans around the world. Including some within its own ranks.
Bishop Peter Beckwith made headlines as one of several outspoken American bishops unhappy with the state of the Episcopal Church over the last decade. Beckwith led the Springfield, Ill., Diocese for 18 years. The diocese of about 5,000 people encompasses Southern and eastern-central Illinois and includes congregations in Alton, Belleville, Carbondale, Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, Granite City and O'Fallon.
Beckwith retired in February, and today, clergy and lay leaders from the diocese will come together to choose four nominees from a slate of 14 who will stand for election in September to succeed him.
The Episcopal Church is the 2.3 million-member U.S. branch of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion. It is one of 38 Anglican provinces around the world, the majority of which opposed the gay bishop's consecration in 2003.
According to church law, anyone in the Anglican Communion can be nominated for bishop. In the case of the Springfield Diocese, all the candidates are part of the Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Anthony Holder, vicar of St. Michael's Episcopal Church in O'Fallon and president of the Standing Committee, the diocese's eight-member ecclesiastical authority between bishops, said nine other candidates refused their nominations.
Each nominee has to have been tapped by both a clergy and lay member of the church, Holder said. Of the 14 who accepted their nominations, five have a connection to the diocese, four others from outside the diocese are considered very conservative, four others are considered moderates and one is considered a liberal.
Among the nominees is the current archdeacon of the diocese (a position close to the bishop), a 32-year-old priest from Florida, a female priest from Texas and the Rev. Richard Hensley, an openly gay priest from Massachusetts.
If Hensley is elected, he would be only the third openly gay Episcopal bishop in the country and the first in the Midwest. Earlier this year, a female gay priest was elected to be a bishop in California.
The Rev. Virginia Bennett, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Edwardsville, said the diocese is too conservative to elect Hensley, despite "a résumé that reads very well."
"He'll be dropped faster than a hot potato," she said.
The Rev. Dale Coleman, rector of St. George Episcopal Church in Belleville, said the candidates make up "a colorful cast." Coleman nominated the rector of a church in California.
He said there were a handful of 'strong nominees," but "I don't rank Hensely as among them," he said.
Hensley could not be reached for comment.
Much of the tension in the Anglican Communion comes from opposition to the actions of the liberal leaning — and deep pocketed — Episcopal Church concerning matters of sex and gender. The communion's more populous — and poorer — provinces, in Africa for instance, have become increasingly dismayed by the actions of their sister province in the United States.
In 2006, Episcopal Church leaders elected a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as their presiding bishop, further angering conservatives in the wider communion and at home.
Beckwith, disappointed by Jefferts Schori's election, threatened to seek alternative oversight for the Springfield Diocese — possibly from a bishop in Africa, as other dioceses had done — rather than submit to her authority. He wrote in a pastoral letter that the Episcopal Church was "in meltdown," and called the moment "the lowest ebb of our beloved but beleaguered Church since perhaps the Civil War if not the American Revolution."
At the same time, some liberals in the diocese complained about Beckwith's pastoral leadership and threatened to defect themselves from his authority to a more friendly bishop in another diocese.
In the end, no one in Springfield decamped for foreign shores, but in 2008, some conservatives in other parts of the country left the Episcopal Church and founded their own province, called the Anglican Church in North America.
"Not only our diocese but the whole Episcopal Church has been rocky and unsettling," Holder said. "The diocese needs someone who can be a reconciler and a healer; someone who will be open to hearing the views of all people."
Chuck Evans, moderator of the 50-member Concerned Laity of the Springfield Diocese, said the church in Springfield "is pretty fractured at this point."
"We need to find a bishop who will keep the diocese in the Episcopal Church," Evans said. "We need a bishop who will support the presiding bishop, whereas in the past, far too often there's been public vilification of Bishop Jefferts Schori."
But the Rev. Keith Roderick, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Carbondale, said the future bishop needed to focus inward, on the needs of the diocese itself, "not necessarily the larger body politic of the church."
Roderick said he nominated the Rev. Shawn Denney, the diocese's archdeacon and vicar of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Springfield, Ill.
The bishop's job "is not a mandate to steer the future direction of the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion, Roderick continued. "It may be somewhat presumptuous for us to go into a nominating process thinking what we need to do is solve all the problems of the church; we have our own problems we have to solve here."
Beckwith and Bennett had a strained relationship. In 2005, Beckwith refused to confirm a lesbian and, later, anyone at all at Bennett's church. Two of St. Andrew's eucharistic ministers — lay people who help the priest during communion — subsequently refused to accept the eucharist from Beckwith, who then stripped all 15 of St. Andrew's eucharistic ministers of their authority.
The following year, the church accused Beckwith of refusing to provide them with pastoral care, and asked if it could seek authority from a neaby bishop instead.
Bennett said this week that an interim bishop, someone who could come into the diocese for a few years to clear the air, would be appropriate to succeed Beckwith. But she said the idea didn't catch on.
"There's so much healing and reconciliation that needs to happen before the diocese will ever have any hope of being healthy again," Bennett said. "When you've gone through a period of time in diocese like we have, you don't just get healthy over night."
Coleman said the diocese became "isolated" under Beckwith, "much of it due to our own hurt and pain," he said.
"If we can't learn to become a large Christian community again," Coleman said, "we will continue to sink."