Three decades of debate about the role of gays in the US Episcopal Church have created rifts that could finally split the denomination and global Anglicanism this week when church leaders gather for their national meeting.
Delegates to the Minneapolis convention will decide whether to approve blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples and confirm the church's first election of an openly gay bishop -- V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The outcome could splinter the 77-million-member global Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the US member. A 1998 gathering of Anglican leaders, called the Lambeth Conference, approved a resolution calling gay sex "incompatible with Scripture."
Conservatives from the US have warned that if the church approves either Robinson's election or same-sex blessings, they will align themselves with like-minded bishops from Africa, Asia and Latin America who have already separated from some dioceses that tolerate homosexuality.
Among the conservatives is Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, which serves 17.5 million people and ranks second in size to the mother Church of England among 38 Anglican branches.
The Episcopal Church has 2.3 million members.
Those who support a wider role for gays in the church contend that conservatives have exaggerated the threat to unity, and note that among the bishops sounding the most alarm are many who pledged to break ties before over issues such as ordaining women -- then did not follow through.
Akinola, visiting the US last week, emerged from a strategy session with conservatives and said: "This time we mean it."
Events building up to the 10-day convention, which starts Wednesday, have only heightened tensions.
World Anglican leaders meeting in Brazil in May rejected same-sex blessings, but said Christians must "respond with love" to gays.
Soon after, the Diocese of New Westminster based in Vancouver, British Columbia, authorized same-sex blessings anyway. Forty overseas and US bishops and several Vancouver parishes responded by breaking ties with the diocese.
Then, on June 7, Episcopalians from the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, elected Robinson as their bishop, drawing condemnation from conservatives in other US dioceses. The divorced father of two has been living with his male partner for years and serving as an assistant to the current New Hampshire bishop.
A month later, the Rev. Jeffrey John, an openly gay clergyman who had been appointed bishop of Reading in the Church of England, declined the post because of "damage my consecration might cause to the unity of the Church." Conservative Anglicans had vehemently opposed his appointment.
Robinson has said he would not step down as John did in England because he feels God wants him to serve his diocese.
"We will show the world how to be a Christian community," he told New Hampshire Episcopalians immediately after his election.
The church requires that a majority of bishops, clergy and lay people serving as convention delegates ratify Robinson's election. Despite the church's divisions, he is expected to be approved. The Episcopal News Service found only two bishops in church history whose elections were rejected -- both in the 1870s.
The chances for the same-sex blessing initiative are less certain. A similar resolution was narrowly defeated at the last convention in 2000, but growing fear about splitting the church could sway this year's vote.