Episcopal bishops promise restraint on electing gay bishops

Published 11:32 pm Tuesday, September 25, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Episcopal leaders, pressured to roll back their support for gays to keep the world Anglican family from crumbling, affirmed Tuesday that they will “exercise restraint” in approving another gay bishop and will not approve prayers to bless same-sex couples.

The statement mostly reiterated previous pledges made by church leaders, and it will not be known for weeks or even months whether the bishops went far enough to help prevent a schism in the Anglican Communion. Theological conservatives in the Episcopal Church immediately rejected the document as too weak.

Bishops released the statement in the final hour of an intense six-day meeting and at a crucial moment in the decades-long Anglican debate over how the Bible should be interpreted.

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The Anglican fellowship has been splintering since 2003, when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Anglican leaders had set a Sunday deadline for the Americans to pledge unequivocally not to consecrate another gay bishop or approve an official prayer service for same-sex couples.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, took the unusual step of attending the meeting for the first two days, pushing bishops to make concessions for the sake of unity. Anglican lay and clergy representatives from overseas also participated, scolding Episcopal leaders for the turmoil they’ve caused. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the United States.

Anglicans across the theological spectrum will interpret the language differently. And Williams said he will take time to evaluate the document with a committee representing Anglican leaders and the Anglican Consultative Council, an international lay-clergy panel.

Episcopal conservatives noted that many priests conduct same-gender blessing ceremonies, despite the lack of an official prayer. Critics also said that national Episcopal church leaders didn’t do enough in their statement to provide alternative leadership for conservative dioceses.

“This is a ‘try to keep your foot in the door’ maneuvering effort,” said Canon Kendall Harmon, a leading conservative from the Diocese of South Carolina.

“It feels like they want to change the ground rules instead of pay the price for what they believe.”

The 77 million-member Anglican Communion is a fellowship of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England. It is the third-largest Christian body in the world.

In the document, Episcopal leaders made some demands of their own, including that overseas Anglican leaders stop coming into the U.S. to take oversight of breakaway conservative Episcopal parishes. Anglican leaders from Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere have consecrated bishops to oversee congregations in the United States.

Four dioceses — Fort Worth, Texas; Pittsburgh; Quincy, Ill.; and San Joaquin, Calif. — are taking steps to break away and align with a like-minded Anglican leader overseas. And about 60 Episcopal parishes have left or have voted to leave the national church. A meeting of U.S. traditionalists who have either split from the national church or are considering leaving began Tuesday in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The next crucial event for the Anglican Communion will be the Lambeth Conference, in July in England. The once-a-decade meeting brings together all the bishops in the Anglican world.

Whether Williams can persuade bishops to attend will be a measure not only of his leadership, but also of the strength of the communion.

Williams did not invite Robinson or a U.S.-based bishop, the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, who leads a network of breakaway conservative Episcopal parishes aligned with the Anglican Church of Nigeria. But some Anglican prelates don’t want to be even at the same table as Episcopalians who consecrated Robinson.

Separately, Robinson has been in private talks with the archbishop of Canterbury to find a way he can attend, as an observer perhaps, and bishops in New Orleans this week voted to support that effort.