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Anglicans Say Split May Occur if Gay Man Ordained as Bishop

Archbishops rebuff conservatives' wishes to eject the U.S. church from the world body.

October 17, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — In a harsh rebuke of the U.S. Episcopal Church, the world's highest-ranking Anglican archbishops warned Thursday that plans by the American church to ordain a gay priest as a bishop jeopardize the unity of the Anglican Communion.

The archbishops -- called primates because they each lead self-governing national churches affiliated with Anglicanism -- served notice that some of them would probably sever ties with the American church if the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, a gay man, is consecrated bishop of New Hampshire as planned in two weeks.

But they stopped well short of fulfilling conservatives' wishes that the Episcopal Church be ejected from the 77-million-member worldwide communion and acknowledged that they had no power to stop Robinson's ordination.

At the end of a two-day emergency summit called by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams -- the spiritual head of the worldwide communion -- the primates said they feared that Robinson's elevation would "tear the fabric of our communion at the deepest level, and may lead to further division."

"If his consecration proceeds, we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion and we have had to conclude that the future of the communion will be put in jeopardy," their statement said.

Despite the increasing pressure on Robinson to voluntarily call off his ordination, he said Thursday in a telephone interview that he intended to proceed.

Robinson, 56, a divorced father of two adult daughters who has lived with his male lover for 13 years, declined to comment further other than to refer to a statement issued Thursday by the Diocese of New Hampshire in support of his ordination.

"We grieve that others in the Anglican Communion have felt deep pain with these issues," the diocese's statement said. But "we reaffirm our belief that the Diocese of New Hampshire faithfully and prayerfully considered and followed a Spirit-led process for the election of our new bishop."

The U.S. church's presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, who was among U.S. Episcopal bishops who voted to confirm Robinson's election, offered some mixed signals here Thursday. While he signed the primates' statement, he said he stood behind the U.S. church's decision and said he would participate if Robinson's consecration proceeds as scheduled Nov. 2.

But Griswold did not rule out the possibility that he would ask Robinson to reconsider. "I might do many things," Griswold said. One of Griswold's aides, communications director Dan England, said later that he doubted that Griswold would ask Robinson to call off the ordination, but England added that he could not speak for Griswold.

Not since the Episcopal Church broke with tradition in the 1970s and became the first Anglican body to ordain women to the priesthood has the worldwide communion been in such turmoil and on the edge of schism.

"In most of our provinces [national churches], the election of Canon Robinson would not have been possible since his chosen lifestyle would give rise to a canonical impediment to his consecration as a bishop," the primates' statement said.

While seeking to avoid schism, the primates' statement criticized the Episcopal Church in strong terms that surprised many church observers. That tenor reflected the increased strength of once colonial but now independent and growing Anglican churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which generally take a more literal view of biblical injunctions against homosexuality than do most North American and European churches.

While the Episcopal Church remains wealthy and contributes a significant proportion of the charity money spent overseas, its U.S. membership is just 2.3 million. By comparison, there are an estimated 17 million Anglicans in Nigeria, whose primate, the Most Rev. Peter Akinola, has become an uncompromising critic of the U.S. church's drift toward what he considers heresy.

Akinola and other "orthodox" archbishops have threatened to break ties with the U.S. church. That could mean that priests from one national church would not, as a rule, be permitted to minister in the other church's territory. It also might mean that the Episcopal Church could cut off funds it sends to overseas churches that have ended relations with the U.S. branch.

In an unprecedented intervention, the primates asked the U.S. church, in consultation with the archbishop of Canterbury, to provide conservative bishops for disaffected Episcopalians who oppose their national church's liberal stand on homosexuality.

However, the statement sought to offer something for all sides and allow the communion to announce that it was signed by all 37 primates present, including Griswold. The 38th primate, Archbishop Ignacio Soliba of the Philippines, was absent because of a reported scheduling conflict.

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