"What do think will happen" a longtime Episcopalian asked me in Charlotte, N.C., "now that Archbishop ... er ... "
"Rowan Williams," I said.
" ... yes, Rowan Williams, has decided to retire?"
The question took me aback. I rarely hear Episcopalians talking about the Archbishop of Canterbury, the London-based head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church as its U.S. branch.
Many Episcopalians pray for the 61-year-old prelate every Sunday, but as Canterbury has gotten more conservative and more solicitous of arch-conservative Anglican bishops from the Third World, Anglicans in developed nations choose to walk their own progressive path.
That separateness was accentuated in 2010, when, in an act of extraordinary rudeness, Williams' office asked the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church not to wear a miter, the pointy hat that symbolizes a bishop's authority, while preaching in London.
Why? Because the presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, was a she. Later, she called the request "beyond bizarre."
Two years earlier, the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from around the world wouldn't even open its doors to the Bishop of New Hampshire, one of the giants of the Episcopal Church, because Gene Robinson -- while safely a he -- was a gay he. He's not the first gay bishop by any means, but he's the first to be honest about it.
Although anti-female and anti-gay tensions at Lambeth are said to have subsided in recent years, I told my questioner that Williams' retirement after 10 tears in office probably would start a new war.
Look for right-wing clerics like those of Uganda and Nigeria to seize the moment to marginalize women, gays and denominations that affirm them. As Anglican numbers dwindle in the West and soar in Africa, the communion's racial balance is shifting, and with it the balance of power.
It's likely, I said, that the new archbishop will be a man of color, perhaps John Sentamu, the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York. The question is whether he will pursue a conservative agenda centered in gender and sexuality, or lead the church to tackle issues that truly matter: rampant greed, predatory corporations, widening gaps between haves and have-nots, and the terrifying rise of religious extremism, including church-backed legislation in Uganda to make homosexuality a capital crime.
What will come of this war? My crystal ball is hazy on such matters, but I said Episcopalians aren't likely to turn conservative. Nor, in my opinion, do we have any appetite for continued battles over gender and sexuality. We are looking at income inequality, joblessness, and growing intolerance as far more worrisome than the she-ness or gay-ness of church leaders.
If the global communion turns to the right and demands that we adopt bigotry as policy, I said we probably will just walk away. It's just as likely that African bishops will lead as movement to kick us out.
Will walkout or eviction happen? Probably not. It is the Anglican way to find compromise, the cherished "via media." But I doubt that American bishops will again look the other way if some of their colleagues are treated rudely at Lambeth. After a muted protest in 2008, I suspect they will show more spine next time.
At the pew level, meanwhile, where my questioner probably isn't alone in not knowing the Archbishop of Canterbury's name, Episcopalians are talking more about growth, new life, young leadership and casting their lot with the 99 percent.
And that, it seems to me, is precisely where we should be.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.