LONDON – A split in the Anglican Communion appeared inevitable following a two-day summit of Anglican leaders, as U.S. Episcopalians rejected a demand from senior archbishops that they not consecrate a gay man as a bishop.
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“Undoubtedly there is a huge crisis looming,” Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said Friday.
“I think what we have achieved this week, though, is at least to find some way of talking through the crisis without instantly jumping into what appear to be quick solutions,” Williams, the spiritual leader of the world’s 77-million Anglicans, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
At the end of a two-day crisis meeting Thursday, the leaders of 37 national churches said the diocese of New Hampshire threatened to split the communion if it goes ahead with plans to consecrate the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop on Nov. 2. The diocese said it was determined to go ahead with consecrating Robinson, who lives with a male partner.
The primates also rebuked the Canadian diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia for approving blessings for same-sex couples. And they set up a commission to spend a year examining the practical issues of administering churches, notably in the United States, which are riven by disputes over homosexuality.
“When and if the ordination of Canon Robinson goes ahead in the U.S., we shall immediately have some responses from around the world, I am sure,” Williams said.
“But what we have done is to give ourselves a sort of 12 month-plus thinking time, inviting provinces to reflect on their reactions and also having a central commission in the Anglican church which will look at the possible implications of a split because there are constitutional, legal questions for all the churches involved,” Williams said.
Advocates for gay clergy and their traditionalist opponents both found some comfort in the primates’ statement.
“The dream of a church that was open and welcoming to gay and lesbian people was realistically never ever going to happen. The relief is that for the moment the communion stays together because that means the conversations can continue, that is certainly good news,” said the Rev. Colin Coward of Britain’s pro-gay group Changing Attitudes.
Conservatives said they were pleased that the primates directed all the churches in the 77-million-member communion to meet the spiritual needs of members who disagree with ordaining gays. Evangelicals had warned they would walk away from the church if the primates did not go far enough in responding to the crisis.
“There will be a split, because there is no option,” said Archbishop Gregory Venables, leader of the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of America, representing the church in Latin America.
The statement called on church leaders to begin thinking about new structures of “episcopal oversight” so that bishops on one side of the debate would not have to supervise congregations that rejected their views.
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, leader of the U.S. Episcopal Church, joined in the statement. He said he intended to be in New Hampshire for Robinson’s consecration – but he said “anything could happen” before then.
Asked if he would urge Robinson to withdraw, Griswold said: “I might do many things.”
Williams, who is personally sympathetic to gays but has pledged to uphold the church’s teaching that homosexual acts are contrary to Scripture, on Thursday called the primates’ statement “an honest statement of where we are, a statement of our willingness to work together, and our recognition of the obstacles to our working together.”
In Canada, Bishop Michael Ingham acknowledged the pain caused by the decision of his diocese of New Westminster.
“We would say as well for our part that the act of rejecting and discriminating against homosexual people around the world causes pain and distress around the world too,” Ingham said. “Nobody has a monopoly on pain.”
Evangelicals fear that pro-gay decisions anywhere within the communion will undermine their evangelism, especially in areas where they are competing with Muslims.
“Minority churches which exist in places like Pakistan and elsewhere depend quite a lot for their status and their public voice on being associated with a … worldwide body,” Williams said.
“When parts of that worldwide body make decision which may be thought to commit or involve those small local churches, they can be placed in appallingly difficult positions.”