Bishops from 111 Episcopal dioceses in the United States are meeting at retreat center near Houston to consider, among other things, how to respond to an ultimatum from African bishops to ban gay bishops and same-sex marriages. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the U.S. bishops are not expected to pronounce on this issue at this meeting, but time is running out.

The four-day meeting at a rural retreat center near the town of Navasota is an annual event and is not generally considered a forum for the discussion of controversial issues. But looming over the U.S. Episcopal bishops is a September 30 deadline to respond to a demand issued by African bishops at a meeting in Tanzania on the gay bishops and same-sex marriage issues.

The rift between the more conservative African church leaders and the liberal U.S. church began with the consecration of homosexual Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in 2003. In addition to their ultimatum, the African bishops created a pastoral council to oversee conservative American congregations that disagree with the U.S. Episcopal Church's overall pro-gay rights position.

Conservatives are a minority in the U.S. Episcopal church, but many bishops may lean toward at least a temporary halt to consecrating gay bishops and gay marriages in order to avoid a split in the community of churches that all derive from the Church of England.

The Reverend Jan Nunley, spokesperson for the U.S. Episcopal Church, says there are many relationships between clergy and members of the church and cooperative projects that hold these churches together in spite of sharp disagreements. "Those relationships will continue and have been continuing in spite of various declarations of impaired or broken communion. We still work together, we still meet together. As (South African Bishop) Desmond Tutu once said, that is what we do, we meet," he said.

Reverend Nunley says the U.S. church has worked closely with African churches on many issues of mutual concern and that kind of cooperation is likely to continue,. regardless of what decision is taken on the Tanzania ultimatum. "The communion works together on a number of issues. Most recently, we have talked about working together on HIV-AIDS prevention in countries in Africa. We do some work on the millennium development goals together, alleviating poverty, combating racism," he said.

A break with the more conservative churches in Africa and Asia over the gay-rights issue is possible, but the loose structure of what is called the Anglican communion would allow many contacts to continue.

Jan Nunley says the U.S. church, which has a little over two million members, is a small part of a 77-million-member worldwide community. "The Episcopal Church is one of 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion. Those are the churches derived from the Church of England, originally, and through various means, some of them were colonies of the British empire and some of them are national churches that were founded by British missionaries over the years, but they all trace back to the Church of England and, therefore, are called Anglican," he said.

Part of the problem between the U.S. church and churches elsewhere is that the U.S. Episcopal Church operates in a democratic fashion. The church split away from the Church of England at the time of the American revolution and many of its founders were the same men who founded the new, democratic government of the United States. Churches in Africa and Asia, however, tend to have more rigid top-down hierarchical structures. The U.S. bishops may issue a reply to the Tanzania ultimatum before September 30, but no official change in church policy can be made until the next General Convention of the Episcopal Church, scheduled for 2009.