NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The U.S. Episcopal Church is in the middle of a wrenching debate that could end with its departure from the Worldwide Anglican Communion over disagreements about gay clergy and same-sex unions.
Episcopal Church bishops are expected to wrap up six days of meetings and ministry in New Orleans on Tuesday with an answer to a request by senior Anglican bishops who met in Tanzania earlier this year.
They have asked that the U.S. church by the end of this month renounce the blessing of same-sex marriages and agree not to allow more non-celibate gays to become bishops.
The stakes are high not least because the Episcopal Church, with 2.4 million members, provides 40 percent of the budget for the operating costs of the 77-million-member Worldwide Anglican Communion, as the global church is known, and a substantial amount of the funds for overseas mission and relief work.
“If the Episcopal Church is isolated from the broader community or chooses to isolate itself, the work of the global communion will suffer greatly,” said Jim Rosenthal, communications director for the Worldwide Anglican Communion.
The conflict was prompted in 2003 when the U.S. church consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop in an openly gay relationship in more than four centuries of church history.
That has caused dissension within the U.S. church, which could split itself, and angered Anglicans in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which combined now account for half of the world’s Anglican followers.
Even as Episcopal Church leaders struggled with the issue, one of their harshest critics — Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria — made a U.S. visit, again condemning homosexuality at a prayer service on Sunday near Chicago.
“Fornication is fornication,” Akinola said, the Chicago Tribune reported on its Web site. It said there were fewer than two dozen protesters greeting Akinola, one of several African church leaders who have been installing conservative bishops in the United States loyal to them and to their views.
In New Orleans Bishop James Adams of western Kansas, a conservative, delivered a sermon on Sunday at the Church of Annunciation, a small, mixed-race congregation, and said Episcopalians who urge acceptance of alternate lifestyles “really don’t understand.”
“I thought for a long time that it was malicious. They were trying to ruin my church... But they really don’t understand that Jesus is the way, not just a way ... that we can choose among all others,” he said.
The New Orleans convention is viewed as a possible showdown because of the bishops’ request.
The consequences of not complying with the September 30 deadline were not spelled out at the Dar es Salaam meeting. They could lead, however, to the Episcopal Church losing full membership in the Worldwide Anglican Communion, religious leaders say.
As Rosenthal spoke on Saturday, Episcopal volunteers from the Diocese of Louisiana scurried in the background to provide refreshments for the community in the parking lot of a former drug store in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward that was converted into a church.
The neighborhood was devastated by Hurricane Katrina two years ago.
For several people there, the issue of sexual orientation was a distraction from what they saw as the church’s core mission of spreading the gospel and helping the needy.
“What we’re about here in Louisiana is relief, development and reclaiming the dignity of every human being,” said Mark Stevenson, operations director for the Diocese of Louisiana.
For others, issues of sexuality go to the heart of their spirituality, and it is clear that the division between more liberal Episcopalians and conservative Anglicans elsewhere, especially in Africa, will not easily be bridged.
“This is more intense than the Episcopal conflict over ordaining women in the 1970s,” said one Episcopal bishop.
The spiritual head of the world’s Anglicans, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, joined the House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans on Thursday and Friday and pledged to do everything in his power to resolve rifts.
“The need that we have for each other is very deep,” he said on Friday before he left.
Additional reporting by Michael Conlon and Bruce Nichols