The Episcopal Church moved closer Wednesday to a showdown with the worldwide Anglican Communion, even as the church's bishops emphasized their desire to remain within that body.
The bishops ended a crucial meeting near Houston with a news conference and a letter in which they rejected a call from Anglican leaders to allow dissident conservative congregations in the United States to be overseen by a separate body that could include leaders from outside the country.
The U.S. bishops did not directly address potentially thornier issues, including demands from Anglican leaders that by September they stop performing official blessings for same-sex couples and consecrating openly gay bishops.
"It is our strong desire to remain within the fellowship of the Anglican Communion," the bishops wrote in their letter to church members. But though they promised to "continue working to find a way of meeting" concerns raised by Anglican leaders, they said they would urge the American church's executive council to reject the governance proposal.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, reacted quickly to the bishops' statements, calling them "discouraging" and saying further discussion was needed.
"Some important questions have still to be addressed. No one is underestimating the challenges ahead," he said.
The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the 77-million-member Anglican Communion. However, for years it has been at odds with much of the communion over the U.S. church's more liberal views on homosexuality and other issues.
In February, Anglican leaders at a meeting in Tanzania called for creation of a special vicar and council to oversee the dissident conservative parishes and dioceses, with three of the five members of the council appointed by clerics outside the United States. That meeting also produced the directive on same-sex blessings and gay bishops.
Though the bishops issued no direct statement on those issues, they overwhelmingly passed three carefully worded resolutions that appeared to send a message.
"We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ, all God's children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ's church," one of the resolutions says.
Bishops at Wednesday's news conference said that though there were differences among American church leaders on issues of theology and sexuality, the leaders were largely unified on the question of outside interference in the governance of their church.
The plan for an alternative leadership "is spiritually unsound," says one resolution issued by the bishops, who had met in private at an Episcopal retreat near Houston. It "encourages one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them and be instruments of reconciliation.
"We cannot accept what would be injurious to this church and could well lead to its permanent division," the resolution says.
The bishops have requested an urgent face-to-face meeting with Williams to discuss their concerns.
The presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, told reporters Wednesday that during the Tanzania meeting, she asked Williams to visit the U.S. this year, but he "indicated at that time that his calendar was too full," she said.
Reaction to news of the bishops' decision included applause from liberal church members and organizations but concern from traditionalists.
The Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon, a leading conservative from South Carolina, called the bishops' actions problematic and a "strong repudiation" of the primates' demands.
"They've rejected what they've been asked, and now I think we're pretty much in uncharted waters," Harmon said.
The Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the Atlanta-based American Anglican Council, which has helped dissident congregations leave the Episcopal Church, said he was disappointed by the bishops' action.
"I was very surprised that in their first meeting after Tanzania that they would start out by alienating the primates and the archbishop of Canterbury and basically giving them a stiff arm," Anderson said. "Strategically, I think it was most unwise on their parts."
Conversely, the group Integrity, a 30-year-old national advocacy organization for gay and lesbian Episcopalians, applauded the bishops' response.
"The bishops have offered the church a way forward that affirms both its commitment to the Anglican Communion and its commitment to the gay and lesbian baptized," said the Rev. Susan Russell of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and the president of Integrity. She lauded the bishops for "refusing to be blackmailed."
The Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, who attended the Texas meeting, said the bishops' discussions were thoughtful and without rancor.