The split between liberal and conservative Anglicans grew wider in September as bishops of the U.S. Episcopal Church reaffirmed their denomination’s more-inclusive stance on homosexuality and a breakaway group of bishops moved to form a “new ecclesiastical structure” in North America.
About 150 Episcopal Church bishops met in New Orleans from Sept. 20 to 25, along with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, several primates (national archbishops from other countries) and members of the international Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). At the end of their meeting, the American bishops issued a statement that they said was the best expression of a position on which all present could agree. (Several conservative bishops had left the meeting early.)
It reiterated decisions made by the church’s governing body, the General Convention, which pledged to “exercise restraint” by not agreeing to the consecration of bishops “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.”
They acknowledged that “non-celibate gay and lesbian persons are included among those to whom (the resolution) pertains.” They also pledged “as a body not to authorize public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions.”
The vote essentially maintained the status quo in the Episcopal Church and represented a rejection of calls from some primates for a stronger stance in favour of the view that the Bible bars gay relationships.
After the New Orleans meeting, the ACC’s joint standing committee released a statement saying it believed the Episcopal Church “has clarified all outstanding questions relating to their response to the questions directed explicitly to them in the Windsor Report.” The committee highlighted the American bishops’ statement that “non-celibate gays and lesbian persons” are among those to whom the General Convention resolution pertains.
However, the Council of African Provinces in Africa (CAPA) meeting in Mauritius Oct. 2-5, said the standing committee’s report was “unsatisfactory” and “appears to be a determined effort to find a way for the full inclusion of the Episcopal Church with no attempt at discipline or change.” The CAPA meeting recommended calling a special session of the primates’ meeting and postponing the 2008 Lambeth Conference until an Anglican covenant is written. Archbishop Williams previously said he does not intend to postpone the conference.
At a news conference during the U.S. bishops’ meeting, former South Carolina bishop Ed Salmon noted that the process used to reach consensus on the final document did not acknowledge the “unconscious oppression of those who don’t agree.” The effort, he said, “represented significant progress in terms of the House of Bishops working together.”
Overlapping the New Orleans meeting, a group of disaffected bishops met in Pittsburgh from Sept. 25 to 28, under the name Common Cause, and pledged to form “an Anglican Union” of “orthodox Anglicans.”
There were reportedly 51 bishops in attendance, including 13 active or retired Episcopal Church bishops. Bishops of other breakaway denominations also attended, as did several bishops consecrated outside the Episcopal Church by prelates in Africa in order that they may minister to disaffected U.S. congregations.
U.S.-based members include the American Anglican Council, Anglican Communion Network, Anglican Mission in the Americas and Convocation of Anglicans in North America. There are two Canadian members of Common Cause: the Anglican Network in Canada and the Anglican Essentials Federation. Retired Canadian bishop Donald Harvey, of the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador (who is the moderator of the Anglican Network in Canada), attended the Pittsburgh meeting.
In a sermon, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, moderator of the Anglican Communion Network, a group of disaffected dioceses and parishes, said the movement “is not just for Anglicans, but for the whole Christian family, and just like the Reformation of the 16th century, we’re in a time when again God’s always reforming his church in the power of his Holy Spirit, not to something new but to the revelation and to what the tradition has always said about him.”
Bishop Duncan urged the gathering of about 100 to be willing to face the consequences of their actions. “My prayer for us who have gathered here is that … we will be such a threat to the present order that we will be found worth killing, if only (St.) Columba’s white martyrdom (without the taking of life), but if it be so, let it be the red martyrdom,” he said.
The group will hold a founding constitutional convention “at the earliest possible date agreeable to all the partners.” Bishop Duncan said his diocese would vote in early November on the first reading of constitutional changes that would formally cut ties with the Episcopal Church. As for Episcopalians who do not wish to secede, he said, “I will remain their bishop as they will have me as their bishop.”
At the New Orleans meeting, meanwhile, the bishops assembled also affirmed Presiding (national) Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s plan to appoint episcopal “visitors” for dioceses that request alternative oversight. The bishops also said they “deplore incursions into our jurisdictions by uninvited bishops and call for them to end.”
The rupture in the U.S. church was prompted by the election of Bishop Gene Robinson, who is in a same-sex relationship, in New Hampshire in 2003. The “exercise restraint” resolution is not binding and may be tested if the diocese of Chicago elects a lesbian candidate on Nov. 10.
Although some U.S. dioceses and some bishops have allowed church blessing ceremonies for gay couples, the governing General Convention has not developed a liturgy and has so far simply voted to acknowledge that such blessings are taking place within the life of the church.
The bishops arrived in a city still struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They helped with rebuilding efforts and dedicated a new Episcopal church called All Souls in one of the worst-hit neighbourhoods, the Lower Ninth Ward.
With files from Episcopal News Service