Episcopal leaders act to avert a schism

NEW ORLEANS – The Episcopal bishops of the United States, attempting to head off a schism over gay rights and biblical interpretation, yesterday promised to “exercise restraint” by not approving more gay bishops and not authorizing a formal ritual for blessing same-sex couples.

The statement is expected to have little practical impact in the United States. Priests in many dioceses around the country, including Massachusetts, are already blessing same-sex unions without a nationally authorized rite, and that practice will not stop. And even before yesterday’s statement, several bishops had said the Episcopal Church was unlikely to approve another gay bishop anytime soon because of the uproar that greeted the 2003 approval of an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.

The pledge, part of an eight-point statement issued in the final minutes of a six-day meeting in New Orleans, reduces the likelihood that the Episcopal Church will be ousted from the 77 million-member global Anglican Communion, according to many US church officials. Only one of the approximately 160 bishops in attendance could be heard voting against the measure, although several of the most conservative bishops had left the meeting Friday.

“I think it lessens the possibility of schism,” said Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts. “I think this is going to meet the needs of the archbishop of Canterbury, and it shows how much we want to be part of the Anglican Communion.”

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, referred to the statement as a clarification of positions already articulated by the US bishops, but said she hopes that “our sacrificial actions and united actions” will help stave off schism.

But there remains an ongoing risk of schism posed by the possible withdrawal from the Anglican Communion by the archbishops from the developing world, particularly in Africa, who have been outspoken in the opposition to the Episcopal Church’s liberal theological direction. The Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million members, is the US province of the global Anglican Communion.

The leaders of several conservative Anglican churches in the United States, some of which are still part of the Episcopal Church and some of which have broken away, are gathering this week in Pittsburgh to discuss their future. Four or five of the 110 Episcopal dioceses are talking about trying to leave the Episcopal Church.

“What we were looking for was clarity, and what we got is an exercise in wordsmithing,” said Robert Lundy, spokesman for the American Anglican Council, an alliance of conservatives. “Overall, we feel disappointment.”

The Episcopal Church has repeatedly sought to portray the conservatives who would leave as a tiny minority.

“The conflict that you read about in the headlines is not reality in 95 percent of the church,” Jefferts Schori said yesterday.

Bishop John W. Howe of Central Florida, one of the most conservative bishops present at the meeting in New Orleans, said last night that he did not vote for the statement because it did not bar blessings of same-sex unions outright, but that he also thought that, among the Anglican primates, as leaders of provinces are called, “the majority will find it acceptable.” Howe, asked if he would try to remove his diocese from the Episcopal Church, said “absolutely not.”

“I think we did better than I expected,” he said.

In the statement, the bishops not only agreed to a moratorium on approving gay bishops and rites of blessing, but also criticized actions by Anglican bishops from the developing world who have agreed to oversee conservative American clergy and congregations. The bishops also called for the archbishop of Canterbury, who met with them on Thursday and Friday, to find a way for Robinson to attend next summer’s Lambeth Conference, a decennial conference of Anglican bishops who gather from around the world in Canterbury, even though some conservative bishops do not want him to attend. The bishops also said, “we call for unequivocal and active commitment to the civil rights, safety and dignity of gay and lesbian persons.”

The archbishop of Canterbury, who is the titular leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion but has legal authority only over the Church of England, said at a press conference here Friday that he would spend the next days reviewing the bishops’ statement and consulting with other Anglican leaders before deciding how to respond to the American bishops’ statement. But Episcopal Church officials said yesterday that Anglican Communion leaders had been briefed on the bishops’ statement and were satisfied.

The American bishops issued their statement under extreme pressure from within the Episcopal Church, which dozens of parishes and thousands of individuals have left because they are upset about the church’s liberal direction. Pressure has also come from elsewhere in the global Anglican Communion, particularly from the developing world, where several leaders say they are reluctant to continue belonging to the same denominational family as a church that is affirming of same-sex relationships.

Multiple parishes in the United States have affiliated with Anglican provinces in Africa and South America, and Anglican leaders in the developing world have been consecrating conservative American priests as bishops. Among the examples is the Rev. William Murdoch of Massachusetts, who last month was consecrated a bishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya; his congregation left behind its buildings and its treasury in West Newbury, purchased a closed Catholic church in Amesbury, and opened a new parish affiliated with the Kenyan province.

Robinson, in an interview, said he was “comforted” by the vote.

“What actually happened was a drawing together of a widely diverse community with a remarkable articulation of our common ground,” he said. “No one’s vision won.”

Robinson said that he believes the Episcopal Church is moving toward greater support of gay rights. “Chicago has nominated an openly gay person [as bishop], and there will be other dioceses that will do so – it’s the way the world is moving, and it’s the way the church is moving,” he said. “It’s anyone’s guess as to when that will happen, but, in the meantime, it’s a little lonely.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 26, 2007.
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