CHICAGO (Reuters) - Leaders of the Episcopal Church told worldwide Anglican bishops on Thursday they had no authority to try to make the church’s U.S. branch change its stand on the consecration of gay bishops.
The Executive Council of the U.S. Episcopal Church approved a statement questioning the authority of the worldwide church’s top bishops “to impose deadlines and demands upon any of the churches of the Anglican Communion,” the formal name for the 77 million-member global church.
The statement was in response to a communique issued in February when the church’s presiding bishops, or primates, met in Tanzania. The bishops called for the 2.4 million-member U.S. church to declare by the end of September a moratorium on the consecration of openly homosexual gay bishops.
It was the 2003 Episcopal Church consecration of Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first bishop known to be in an openly gay relationship in more than four centuries of church history, that triggered the dispute.
In addition, the bishops at the African meeting urged the U.S. church to end “public rites” blessing same-sex unions and to allow for a U.S.-based “primatial vicar” to oversee disaffected followers, some of whom have already put themselves under the jurisdiction of conservative bishops in Africa and elsewhere.
In the statement approved at the end of a four-day meeting in New Jersey, the Executive Council said the requests made by the primates “are of a nature that can only properly be dealt with by our General Convention.”
That convention, a periodic meeting of Episcopal Church bishops and laity, was last held in the summer of 2006 and is not scheduled again until the summer of 2009.
At the meeting last year, the convention urged Episcopalians to “exercise restraint” in elevating people to bishop “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church.” But it did not ban such consecrations.
“Assertions of authority met by counter-assertions of polity are not likely to lead to the reconciliation we seek,” the U.S. church leaders told the Anglican bishops in Thursday’s statement.
They also rejected the primatial vicar scheme as violating its constitution and said the church convention had never authorized the blessing of same-sex unions in the first place, although it recognized that such blessing do take place at local discretion.
The statement expressed a desire for a continued full relationship with the worldwide church but added:
“At various times in our history, we have struggled to embrace people who have historically been marginalized ... today this struggle has come to include the place of gay and lesbian people and their vocations in the life of the Church.”
Robinson’s elevation not only splintered the U.S. church but riled defenders of traditional Christianity in the church’s “Global South” — African, Asian and Latin American congregations that now account for half of the world’s Anglican followers.
But unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans are organized as a federation of national churches without hierarchical lines of authority, though the Archbishop of Canterbury holds a first-among-equals leadership position.
The bishops of the U.S. church will meet in September in new Orleans. Presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said on Thursday that the matter will be discussed again then and “the bishops will do what they will do.”