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Anglicans Seek Unity, Contend on Sexual Issues

Upcoming consecration of openly gay bishop has conservatives asking for U.S. church's expulsion.

October 16, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The world's highest-ranking Anglican archbishops struggled here Wednesday to maintain unity at an emergency church summit prompted by the U.S. Episcopal Church's controversial decisions to ordain an openly gay bishop and tacitly allow the blessing of same-sex couples.

The archbishops' deliberations were conducted privately behind the walls of Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the archbishop of Canterbury. But their spokesman broadly hinted that they probably will reject conservative pleas to expel the U.S. Episcopal Church, at least for the immediate future.

Archbishop Robert Eames of the Church of Ireland, the official spokesman, called speculation that the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion would split over the homosexuality debate "unfounded."

He said that all 37 archbishops present had voiced "concern" about maintaining unity, including those from Africa, South America and Southeast Asia who have severely criticized the U.S. Episcopal Church.

"There is an underlying anxiety right across the board to maintain the Anglican Communion," Eames told reporters.

"If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it's moving toward a consensus situation," Eames said of the decision expected to be announced today.

The U.S. Episcopal Church is one of 38 self-governing national churches in the communion. The spiritual head of the worldwide communion is Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who called the meeting. He does not have the power to override the U.S. Episcopal Church's policies but can declare them out of communion with the worldwide church.

Some conservative archbishops have pushed for not only a repudiation of the U.S. Episcopal Church's decisions, but an ultimatum that the American church could be evicted from the communion unless it recants and returns to what they call biblical orthodoxy condemning homosexuality.

One knowledgeable conservative source, who has been close to those in the meeting, said it appeared that U.S. conservatives would be disappointed if they counted on support from archbishops from the Southern Hemisphere for booting out the U.S. Episcopal Church.

"It looks like the alliance that was heralded basically broke apart," the source said on condition that he not be identified.

A liberal, the Rev. Michael Hopkins, past president of Integrity, a U.S. Episcopal gay advocacy organization, added, "Obviously we're not getting kicked out."

Eames, known for his liberal views on the issue, said the meeting in Lambeth Palace, on the banks of the River Thames across from the Houses of Parliament, was characterized by "openness, frankness and honesty." Archbishops expressed sharp differences over homosexuality and whether biblical references condemning sex between members of the same gender should apply to committed gay and lesbian couples in view of modern understandings of sexual orientation.

The archbishops, known as primates because they each lead a national church, spoke of "collegiality, cooperation and the common faith," Eames said. Nonetheless, Eames -- who in the 1970s was a driving force in holding the communion together after the Episcopal Church became the first to ordain women -- called the first seven hours of the summit "quite a long time of intensity."

Allowing the 2.3-million-member U.S. Episcopal Church to remain in the Anglican Communion would not preclude some kind of reprimand or censure for the two controversial decisions it made at its national convention in Minneapolis in August.

At that time, the U.S. Episcopal Church's highest legislative body, the General Convention, confirmed the election of a gay man, the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, and tacitly allowed local bishops to authorize marriage-like ceremonies in their dioceses for gay and lesbian couples.

Robinson, scheduled to be consecrated as bishop next month, has given no sign that he would step down. Formerly married, he is the father of two grown daughters. He has been in an open 13-year relationship with a man he met a year after his divorce. The U.S. Episcopal Church said it believed that Robinson would be the first openly gay priest to be consecrated bishop in the Anglican Communion, which claims a 2,000-year line of apostolic succession going back to the time of Jesus.

Even before Eames' announcement, a prominent conservative who had hoped the U.S. Episcopal Church would be expelled, said Wednesday that such a drastic step was now unlikely.

"I think the likelihood is we'll somehow stay together," said the Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the conservative American Anglican Council. Anderson confirmed that he was among a number of U.S. conservatives who met privately with a reported 18 sympathetic archbishops from the global south on the eve of Wednesday's summit.

But Anderson said he had not given up hope that the Episcopal Church, led by the Most. Rev. Frank T. Griswold, its presiding bishop and primate, would be censured, along with any other U.S. bishops who voted to confirm Robinson. He also hoped the primates here would urge Robinson to change his mind and choose not to be consecrated.

Anderson said conservatives could leave the church entirely if the primates neither reprimanded the Episcopal Church nor gave them conservative bishops to pastor them.

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