Nancy Key, a lifelong Episcopalian, grew uneasy as speaker after speaker at her diocesan meeting rose to denounce the confirmation of the first openly gay bishop in the history of the American church.
The Diocese of San Joaquin, Calif., is among the more conservative in the nation, and its bishop, John-David Schofield, is prominent in the network moving toward a break with the denomination's leaders.
''I got up to speak and I was the only speaker who spoke against splitting. I said I was proud of my church,'' Key said. ''It was deathly quiet and I walked back to my seat and felt I was the only person in my diocese who felt that way.
Key, of Fresno, eventually found others who shared her views and they formed an advocacy group one of several springing up nationwide that are fighting to prevent their conservative dioceses from separating from the church.
Along with San Joaquin, advocates are organizing in the predominantly conservative dioceses of Fort Worth, Texas, Albany, N.Y., and Pittsburgh, Pa., home to the leader of dissenting conservatives, Bishop Robert Duncan. Other groups are becoming active in Springfield, Ill., South Carolina and Florida.
Organizers say they represent both liberals who support the consecration of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire and moderates who may disagree with ordaining gays but don't want the denomination to break apart over the issue. Robinson has lived openly with his male partner for 14 years.
Many hope a national network of like-minded Episcopalians will emerge to fight for unity.
''There are so many people in so many pockets who do not want to leave the church that I want to find a way to bring them together,'' said Key, whose group is called Remaining Episcopal.
These fledgling organizations generally have little money and no formalized membership, but some report e-mail lists of supporters ranging from 80 to more than 300 people each.
They have become more active as the American Anglican Council, which represents conservatives, creates a network of parishes and dioceses separate from the church's leadership. The 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the global Anglican Communion.
Among the many activities the new advocacy groups are undertaking is monitoring claims by the council and others about the size and scope of the conservative movement.
Albany Via Media (which means ''middle way'' in Latin) is checking that its diocese is making any payments it promised to the national denomination, said the Rev. James Brooks-McDonald of Schenectady, N.Y.
Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh has distributed brochures at a series of diocesan meetings countering proposals by conservatives that were meant to lay the groundwork for separating from the church.
And Fort Worth Via Media has started a fund that could help cover legal costs if the diocese or individual parishes try to leave the denomination and take their property with them.
But just as important, advocates say, is the emotional support the groups provide and the relief participants feel from the isolation of holding a minority viewpoint among zealous conservatives. (Conservatives in liberal dioceses complain about feeling similarly alienated.)
''It is a bit stifling to feel such a wave of unmitigated not loathing, but distrust or fear from the other side,'' in discussions of homosexuality, said Barbi Click of Fort Worth Via Media. ''Who do you go to for pastoral help when your clergy and your bishop, you don't feel like they want to be a part of your life?''
Asked to respond, Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker said that the organizers he knows are loyal church members, but ''they tend to exaggerate things and seem interested only in trying to stir up controversy by some of their accusations.''
Iker insisted he has no plans to move the diocese out of the church, despite his support for the new conservative network.
Duncan, the Pittsburgh bishop, was traveling and unavailable for comment. But Assistant Bishop Harry Scriven insisted that dissenting voices within the Pittsburgh diocese are considered.
''Their views are certainly heard. I don't think they can expect people can always agree with them. Sometimes their views are taken on and discussed and responded to,'' Scriven said. ''One of the problems that you do hear is groups like this feel persecuted. I hardly believe they could think that.''
Lionel Deimel, president of the Pittsburgh advocacy group, said moderates and liberals in his diocese do sometimes feel bullied. His organization has been reaching out to conservatives and together they have collected about 800 signatures on a petition calling for unity.
''The Anglican way has generally been to agree on how we worship and not to inquire too deeply into your exact theological beliefs beyond the basics,'' Deimel said. ''But the people who are supporting Bishop Duncan are very much concerned about purity. They feel they have 'the' interpretation of Scripture. It's very un-Anglican.''
On the Net:
Albany Via Media: http://www.albanyviamedia.org/
Fort Worth Via Media: http://www.fwviamedia.org/
Remain Episcopal: http://www.remainepiscopal.org/
Pittsburgh Progressives: http://www.geocities.com/PEPhomepage/
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