There have been many predictions of dawning schism in the worldwide Anglican communion over the last six years – as the Guardian's former religious affairs correspondent I wrote some of them myself – but the decision of the US Episcopal church to affirm its belief that gays, lesbians and transgendered folk are eligible to be considered for ordination may indeed mark a watershed.
Behind the studiously constructed words of resolution DO25, passed by the church's triennial general convention in Anaheim, perhaps better known to the secular world as the home of Disneyland, lies the potential for a Christian milestone that may ultimately rank the Los Angeles suburb alongside the Council of Nicaea, the Synod of Whitby, or the Edict of Nantes. Or possibly not.
On the face of it, and perhaps in the depth of it as well, the resolution simply states the Americans' belief that God has called and may call such individuals to any ordained ministry within its portals. It does not, technically, end the moratorium the church agreed at its last convention three years ago not to elect any more gay bishops, following its experiment with the consecration of Gene Robinson, a partnered, gay, clergyman, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. It just signals that it may do so, just as Christian churches including our own dear CofE have done, knowingly if discreetly, for centuries.
But of course the symbolism of the resolution is much more than technical, the culmination of a six-year split since Robinson's election by his parishioners and one which has been anticipated with varying degrees of relish by both sides, especially the conservatives opposed to gay people, ever since. They have responded characteristically to the convention's vote, although their outrage at the thought of any accommodation with gay people who might actually want to belong to their church has been well-honed and practised for years.
As Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, expostulates in the Times, it gives active expression to any and every sexual desire. This, as Wright – a clever if conceited man – ought to know, is simply not true. The sort of relationship that the Episcopalians might sanction is not any old promiscuous or abusive perversion, but a lifelong, loving commitment between two persons of the sort you might think the church would welcome and which Wright could find any day of the week among the currently ordained clergy of the Church of England. In a church which marries without question promiscuous heterosexuals, sometimes several times, and blesses pets and nuclear submarines without a qualm, you might think the expression of mutual commitment, which may or may not have a sexual element if you are prurient enough to ask, would be welcomed rather than spurned. After all, the church some time ago accepted the reality of divorce (its founder Henry VIII was rather keen on the idea) about which the Bible has much more disobliging things to say than homosexuality.
As it is, this week's Anaheim resolution will probably become the occasion for a split in the ranks of worldwide Anglicanism, the third largest Christian denomination. The Americans insist they don't want it and indeed it has almost exclusively been the church's conservative, largely evangelical, movements and pressure groups which do and have done all along.
The conservative forces are ready to go and have their organisations and lobbyists already in place and flexing their muscles, keen to take over the communion and reshape it in their image – though, interestingly, the conservatives are already falling out among themselves, united in what they oppose rather than what they agree. In England certainly if the conservative evangelicals get their way the established church will look very different from the broad, tolerant institution that it has been up till now – even Tom Wright might find himself anathematised. Some of them insist that the 17th-century Reformation did not go far enough and needs to be finished, which may come as a surprise to the high church Anglo-Catholics with whom they have allied, whose dearest wish is to reunite with Rome. Perhaps someone should tell them.
If the Americans are shown the door the consequences for worldwide Anglicanism are incalculable and not just because the wealthy US church largely pays for and sustains the communion, including in those parts of the world where the church's mission would not otherwise survive. In the Church of England there are many who find they have more in common with their American brethren than with the strident, coercive voices they hear from the conservatives.
All of which leaves poor old Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and as such nominal head of the Anglican communion, with a dilemma which has loomed over his head ever since his enthronement six years ago. Who ultimately to run with? As he sits lonely and anguished in his study at Lambeth Palace, or heads off with his bucket and spade to a lonely beach in Wales this summer, he may wonder whether it has all been worth it.
His tactics of delay, procrastination, conciliation and appeasement – so often useful weapons for Anglicanism in the past – have failed to reconcile the irreconcilable. Now it may be too late to be firm. As a bishop once said to me: Rowan's been too damn Christian towards them – meaning the conservative splitters – a verdict that on the whole the archbishop might appreciate, but which hasn't worked in stemming the rift. Turning the other cheek might be a virtue, but not necessarily against opponents determined to get their own way. Time for a prayer?