“The Republican party at prayer” is the way Americans used to snicker at the Episcopal Church, the snobby, worldly US branch of the Anglican communion. Recently, though, the church has taken on a new identity in the eyes of the world: as the gay-rights movement at prayer. Church leaders met in Columbus, Ohio, last week to vote on dozens of pressing internal matters. They elected the church’s first-ever female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, to lead it for the next nine years. But all of that won public notice only in relation to the leaders’ deliberations over gay ordinations, gay bishops and gay marriages.

Such questions disturb all churches nowadays but gay issues are a particularly big problem for Episcopalianism. One reason is that the church is dying. Through decades in which Americans have moved to more conservative denominations, Episcopalians swam with the social tide and against the religious one, trying to anticipate rather than adapt to new movements that speak in the name of liberation. This won the church political kudos – particularly during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa – but it never drew spiritually hungry people into the pews. With just over 2m worshippers, the Episcopal Church is smaller than in generations. Its influence comes from the inertia of the era when it was the church of the few, the rich and the well-born.

The US church has another problem: it is at odds with the practices of the global Anglican communion, whose 75m members make up the world’s third largest church body. Most of Anglicanism’s 38 “provinces” do not ordain women, as the US church has done since 1976, and only three – Canada and New Zealand are the others – elect women bishops. But it was the elevation of an outspoken homosexual, Gene Robinson, to be the bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 that led the thriving African churches, along with several traditional dioceses in the US, to threaten to break communion with the Episcopal Church. Going into last week’s conclave, a schism in Anglicanism looked possible. Now it looks probable.

World Anglican leaders responded to Mr Robinson’s election with the so-called Windsor report of 2004. They demanded an apology for the American church’s having consecrated him in the first place. (“Pending such expression of regret,” the report ran, “those who took part as consecrators of Gene Robinson should be invited to consider in all conscience whether they should withdraw themselves from representative functions in the Anglican communion.”) The report also called for a moratorium on gay bishops and on church blessings of gay partnerships. Episcopalians bought 18 months by insisting they could not address the demands until this year’s convention.

Probably the theological breach between the US and the other Anglican provinces was already too wide to be healed. But Episcopalian leaders compounded the problem with condescension and disingenuousness. The US church rejected the moratorium on bishops (while ignoring the matter of blessings) but not before expressing its “regret for straining the bonds of affection in the events surrounding the general convention of 2003 and for the consequences which followed”. It added its “sincerest apology to those within the Anglican communion who are offended by our failure to accord sufficient importance to the impact of our actions on our church”. To hostile ears, it must have sounded as if the US church was apologising for its failure to bear in mind the ignorance of its sister churches.

Having rejected the moratorium – and amid warnings from the outgoing presiding bishop that the archbishop of Canterbury would require some kind of concession before inviting them to the Lambeth conference in 2008 – the convention passed another resolution that closely resembled the moratorium. This one promised “to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on the communion”. But since the convention had already rejected a definition of marriage as being between men and women, it was not quite clear what they meant by this. It looked less like compromise than spin, particularly when 30 bishops promised to flout it and Ms Schori described herself as “fully committed to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in this church”.

Unlike the Church of England, a moderate church that does not know its own mind (on women as bishops, for instance), the Episcopal Church is a radical one that does. Last week, the bishop said in her first sermon: “Mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation – and you and I are his children.” The African part of the Anglican communion knows its own mind, too. Its leaders have expressed their sympathy for those US conservatives who would have been unhappy with the election of Ms Schori even had she been a moderate. Peter Akinola, archbishop of Nigeria and chairman of the primates of the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa, sent a note reading: “We assure all those scripturally faithful dioceses and congregations alienated and marginalised within your provincial structure that we have heard their cries.”

It may look anomalous that US Anglicans should be so far to the left of their sister churches, especially since American worship in general is so far to the right of that in other western countries. But it is natural in light of the social and political function that has always been such an important accompaniment to the US church’s pastoral one. Today’s Episcopal Church is becoming a politicised rump of its old self, as those who were attracted to Anglicanism’s doctrines are lured away to a more conservative Christianity – whether because it offers more Republicans or more prayer.

The writer is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard

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