The world’s third-largest Christian denomination appears to be in serious reflection about how — and whether — to stay unified amid divisions about human sexuality and other issues.
The leader of the Anglican Communion, the third-largest Christian group in the world, with some 85 million members, on Wednesday called a gathering of leaders from his fractured denomination to discuss sexuality, religious violence and other topics.
The Communion of national churches, which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States, have been affiliated for centuries.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby announced Wednesday that he had summoned Anglican leaders to a special meeting that will be held in January, including a review of the structure of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The Communion has been divided globally and in the United States for years over issues from gay rights to women’s ordination to how to read scripture. The two sides have been mostly meeting in court during multimillion-dollar lawsuits over who has the right to church properties.
Globally, the split among Anglicans is similar to that among other Christian groups that spread from the more liberal West to the developing world, where conservative Christianity is booming and liberal sexual mores are totally unaccepted.
The 2003 consecration of the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire served as a flash point in the many debates over whether the church body should remain one. In late 2014, the Church of England approved female bishops.
“We have no Anglican Pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted,” Welby said in his statement.
The Lambeth Palace posted on Twitter that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not breaking up Anglicanism.
A spokesperson for Lambeth Palace could not be reached immediately.
Welby’s invitation seemed to catch leaders in the Episcopal Church – a small but historic and prominent Protestant denomination – off guard. Neva Rae Fox, a spokeswoman for the incoming leader of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry, declined to comment.
The invitation extended to Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church of North America was seen as a surprise. ACNA, which has served as an umbrella for many of the churches that broke away from the Episcopal Church, is not formally recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Beach said in a statement that he plans to attend but declined to comment.
Getting Anglicans who disagree with one another to meet in the same room has been rare. The reason why leaders agreed to meet this time was because it is considered a less formal gathering, not an official meeting.
Welby, who comes from an evangelical wing of the Church of England, is a former oil executive who has been seen as someone who could lead reconciliation between groups. Leaders informally met with each other at his consecration in 2012.
Leadership in the Anglican Communion has changed since some of the hot button debates of previous decades, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America.
The more conservative parts of the Communion are fast-growing and pushing back harder against recognizing the credentials of their more liberal clergy counterparts.
“For any institution that tries to be a global church,” this will be an issue, said Baylor University religious history professor Philip Jenkins. In a sense the idea that the Communion could loosen or even break up might not feel like news, Jenkins said.
“In some ways it’s just giving up the attempt to square the circle. They’re going in such different ways,” Jenkins said of the more liberal and more conservative parts of Anglicanism.
The Guardian reported Wednesday that Lambeth sources put “the possibility of catastrophic failure” at about 25 percent. Welby will likely try to hold the communion together and try to push the reset button, said George Conger, a journalist from the more conservative wing of the Episcopal Church.
Some conservative leaders believe Welby could suggest the model of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which would be a looser communion but still a formal denomination with an identifiable leader, Conger said.
“Everybody wants to find a way forward, but at the same time, everybody is pushing their particular issues and agendas,” Conger said. “It’ll be something like a dreadful Thanksgiving or an intervention with your drunken uncle and everyone thinks the other person is at fault.”