NEW YORK – Episcopal bishops risked losing their place in the global Anglican family Wednesday by affirming their support for gays and rejecting a key demand that they give up some authority to theological conservatives outside the U.S. church.
In strong and direct language, the Episcopal House of Bishops said it views the Gospel as teaching that “all God’s children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants” in the church. The bishops also said they would not agree to an Anglican plan for leaders outside the U.S. denomination to oversee the small number of conservative American dioceses that disagree.
“We cannot accept what would be injurious to the church and could well lead to its permanent division,” the bishops said in a resolution from a private meeting in Texas. “If that means that others reject us and communion with us, as some have already done, we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision.”
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. wing of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, a fellowship of churches that traces its roots to the Church of England. But it is at odds theologically with the vast majority of Anglican churches, which take a more conservative view on sexuality and other issues.
Episcopal bishops said they still have a “passionate desire” to stay in the communion. But the Anglican spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, issued a brief statement Wednesday calling their decision “discouraging.” The small yet affluent Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million members, covers a significant chunk of the Anglican Communion’s budget.
“No one is underestimating the challenges ahead,” Williams said.
Anglicans have been debating for decades how they should interpret Scripture on salvation, truth and sexuality. Those divisions reached the breaking point in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated the church’s first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Williams has no direct authority to force a reconciliation, and has been struggling to negotiate a compromise.
The latest plan for reconciliation emerged from a meeting of Anglican leaders, called primates, last month in Tanzania – and it included an ultimatum for the U.S. church.
Episcopalians were given until Sept. 30 to unequivocally pledge not to consecrate another partnered gay bishop or authorize official prayers for same-sex couples. Otherwise, the church could have a much-reduced role in the communion.
As part of the Anglicans’ demands, Episcopalians were told to accept a “primatial vicar” and special committee that would oversee U.S. dioceses that reject Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Six dioceses do not recognize her authority because of her support for gay relationships and liberal theology. Three of the six also do not accept the ordination of women.
In return, the Anglicans said they would stop Anglican bishops from coming on their own into the United States to take oversight of conservative U.S. parishes. Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola has started a conservative parish network as a rival to the Episcopal Church.
But the Episcopal bishops said ceding authority to a panel that included overseas Anglicans cuts against Episcopal church law.
Episcopal bishops on Wednesday did not respond to the Anglican demand about gay bishops and blessing ceremonies. However, the leaders noted that they had previously met requests not to approve another gay bishop “at great cost to many, not the least of whom are our gay and lesbian members,” only to have Anglican leaders say the pledges weren’t sufficient.
Still, the bishops insisted in a news conference after the meeting that their new statement was not their last word on Anglican demands.
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