Episcopalians brace for possible church split

Episcopalians across the country reacted today to news that Episcopal bishops appeared to be taking steps toward rejecting several demands made by top Anglicans of the American church, steps that could push the two bodies toward a formal split.

The bishops were to hold a 1:30 p.m. PDT news conference today to explain Tuesday’s decision to refuse a demand by Anglican leaders that they provide a special vicar for orthodox congregations and dioceses that oppose the Episcopal Church’s positions on issues of homosexuality and biblical teaching. The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest Christian denomination with 77 million members.

The bishops, who have been meeting privately in a retreat near Houston this week, also requested an urgent meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion.

In February, Anglican leaders, meeting in Tanzania, gave the Episcopal Church until Sept. 30 to state explicitly that it would bar official blessings for same-sex couples and stop consecrating gay bishops. The leaders, known as primates, also called for the creation of a special vicar and council to oversee a number of conservative American dioceses that have rebelled against the U.S. church’s relatively liberal views on homosexuality and biblical teachings.

But the Episcopal bishops released a statement late Tuesday saying that establishment of the outside council would be “injurious” to the church and urging its executive council to refuse it. They called the plan “spiritually unsound” and said it could lead to permanent division of the U.S. church.

The bishops emphasized their hope that the Episcopal Church could remain part of the wider communion. But in one of three strongly worded resolutions, they also outlined how the church’s efforts to meet the Anglican leaders’ demands had been futile so far.

The U.S. church “welcomes diversity of thought and encourages free and open theological debate as a way of seeking God’s truth,” the bishops said. “If that means that others reject us as some have already done, we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision.”

Gaps have been growing among liberal and traditional church members in the United States and abroad for years, but reached a breaking point in 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Today, reaction to news of the bishops’ decisions was swift, from Episcopalians on all sides of the issues.

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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 surprised and 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.”

Bloggers on a host of church-related websites offered a variety of views. Liberals applauded the bishops, with many saying they were relieved and pleasantly surprised by the tone of the resolutions. Conservatives expressed concern for the future of the U.S. church and said they worried about its ability to remain a member of the wider communion.

In a letter to New Hampshire church members, meanwhile, Robinson said the bishops’ meeting, in which he is participating, had been calm and peaceful.

In the letter sent today, he also said the majority of bishops, both progressive and conservative, saw the primates’ demand for a special vicar as “an unfair, illegal and wholly unprecedented assault” on the governance and “internal integrity of the Episcopal Church.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday March 22, 2007.
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