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Anglicans Avoid Split For Now On Gay Issues

February 20, 2007|Morris Mwavizo and Rebecca Trounson | Special to The Times

DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA — Anglican leaders wrapping up a tense meeting here Monday called on the U.S. Episcopal Church to state unequivocally that it will bar the blessing of same-sex unions and stop consecrating gay bishops in order to heal a rift that threatens to split the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The five-day meeting ended with a joint communique and without evidence of an immediate schism in the 77-million-member global church, which many had feared. But tensions remained over the U.S. church's comparatively liberal stance on issues of biblical interpretation and homosexuality.

In the communique, issued near midnight local time and after multiple revisions, the Anglican leaders said that past statements by the Episcopal Church about gay unions and consecrations have been so vague that they have failed to heal the "broken relationships" with the wider communion. The Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million members, is the American wing of the denomination.

The Anglican leaders gave the U.S. church a deadline of Sept. 30 to clarify its position, warning that if the requested reassurances could not be given by then, the Episcopal Church ran the risk that its relationship with the global communion would be "damaged at best."

The communique also hinted at possible expulsion, noting that such damage "has consequences for the full participation of the church in the life of the communion."

Alluding to the consecration of the first openly gay bishop, the primates wrote: "Since the controversial events of 2003, we have faced the reality of increased tension in the life of the Anglican Communion -- tension so deep that the fabric of our common life together has been torn."

The meeting, which brought together representatives of the Anglican Communion's 38 regional or national churches, was dominated by discussions about the Episcopal Church, which in recent years has itself been torn by tensions over the same contentious issues.

Divisions among liberal and traditional church members in the United States and abroad have been growing for years, but reached crisis when the Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The church's election last year of a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as its new presiding bishop has further alienated conservatives, many of whom are opposed to women serving as priests.

The most conservative Anglicans have demanded that the American branch be disciplined, reduced to second-tier status, or expelled for failing to adhere to the global communion's resolutions. Liberals have argued that the church has a tradition of tolerance and that it should be allowed to embrace a variety of views on homosexuality.

In a brief news conference after the communique was released, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the communion's spiritual leader, said the document "will certainly fall very short of resolving all the disputes" but offered a way forward.

Williams, who along with others at the news conference appeared exhausted, does not have the authority to force a solution on the global church or its semiautonomous "provinces," as the national and regional churches are known.

Jefferts Schori, a liberal who has expressed support for gay clergy and blessing same-sex unions, also was tired after the meeting and not available for comment, according to an aide, Robert Williams. He would say only that in the coming days, the U.S. church would "look carefully at the communique."

It was unclear what effect the document would have on same-sex blessings that have already occurred. It called for a moratorium on future rites and recommended that clergy should "express regret" for ceremonies performed in the past.

A spokeswoman at the Episcopal Church's New York office said the meeting appeared to have produced no clear victor between the communion's vying liberal and conservative factions.

"Nobody walks away as an absolute winner or an absolute loser," said the Rev. Jan Nunley, the U.S. church's deputy for communication. "Nobody's going to be happy with this, and there's going to be a lot of hard work ahead."

But some conservative Anglicans expressed cautious optimism. The Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon, a conservative from South Carolina who posted regular blog updates from Tanzania throughout the meeting, called parts of the final communique "very good news."

Harmon, who wrote that the meeting did not produce everything he would have wanted, praised the leaders for coming to an agreement and giving the Episcopal Church "specific deadlines with real consequences."

Conversely, the group Integrity, a 30-year-old national gay and lesbian advocacy organization, on Monday called on its members and allies to urge their bishops to reject the demands of the primates, as presiding bishops are known.

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