CHICAGO (Reuters) - Leaders of the U.S. Episcopal Church face a wrenching decision in the next few days on whether to issue a clear-cut ban on allowing people in gay relationships to be bishops and on blessing same-sex unions.
The issues have already fractured the global Anglican church and its liberal-leaning U.S. Episcopal branch, and threaten both with outright schism.
The bishops of the U.S. church meet in New Orleans for six days beginning Thursday, including two days with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, leader of the 77-million-member Worldwide Anglican Communion, as the global church is called.
At the top of the agenda is a “request” issued by the presiding Anglican bishops meeting in Africa earlier this year that the 2.4-million-member U.S. church, by September 30, clearly renounce the blessing of same-sex marriages and make it clear it will not allow more non-celibate gays to become bishops.
The U.S. church in 2003 consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop known to be in an openly gay relationship in more than four centuries of church history.
That not only caused dissension and defection within the U.S. church but riled defenders of traditional Christianity in African, Asian and Latin American congregations that now account for half of the world’s Anglican followers.
And it left Williams with an increasingly difficult task of keeping the loose federation of Anglicans under one tent without alienating the U.S. church whose wealth gives it power far beyond its numbers in Anglican operations worldwide.
The Episcopalians have never issued a pronouncement for or against the blessing of gay unions, although the practice is common in some congregations. At its general convention in 2006, the U.S. church adopted a resolution urging congregations to “exercise restraint” in elevating anyone to bishop whose “manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church.”
“They are going to stay their course,” the Rev. David Anderson, head of the orthodox-espousing American Anglican Council, said of the bishops. “They believe they are right. It will get them into more trouble.”
In fact the U.S. church’s Executive Council said in June that the presiding bishops who issued the communique in Africa had no authority “to impose deadlines and demands” on anyone. The bans they wanted, it said, can come only from the U.S. church’s triennial gathering of clergy and lay leaders, which next meets in 2009.
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.
David Virtue, who backs orthodoxy in a widely read online newsletter, said in a commentary the Episcopal bishops have the power themselves to ban both gay bishop elevations and same-sex union blessings, and not doing so now “could doom the church.”
He suggests that hundreds of orthodox Episcopalians leave the church every week, many placing themselves under the jurisdiction of conservative bishops from Africa who have been installing bishops loyal to them in the United States.
The Episcopal Church, however, says only 32 congregations have actually left and an additional 23 have voted to leave — out of more than 7,600 congregations in 110 dioceses in the United States and 15 other countries.
Conservatives have already made plans beyond New Orleans, with a meeting scheduled in Pittsburgh next week under the auspices of the Anglican Communion Network to try to organize orthodox North American Anglicans.
Peter Frank, a spokesman for the network, said the House of Bishops “can do what it has been requested to do, or it can continue to go its own way. There really isn’t a third option on the table.”