Anglican Church leaders tried to soothe both sides Tuesday in a conflict over homosexuality that has deeply divided their faith: They rejected blessings of same-sex unions but said Christians must “respond with love and understanding to people of all sexual orientations.”
The bishops who head the 38 branches of the international Anglican Communion issued their statement at the end of a weeklong closed-door meeting in Brazil.
The leaders, known as primates, said: “There is no theological consensus about same-sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorization of such rites.”
But that conservative stance was balanced with language to assuage liberals, acknowledging the role of each nation and diocese in meeting the duty of pastoral care toward homosexuals.
The primates said they will respect the integrity of each national church -- national churches are self-governing within the Anglican Communion -- and their local dioceses. They also acknowledged bishops’ responsibility to meet the pastoral needs of minorities.
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who leads America’s Episcopal Church, said it was quite amazing how far the primates from around the world have come in understanding one another’s realities.
The Rev. Michael Hopkins, a U.S. proponent of church blessings for same-sex couples, said he thinks the underlying message of Tuesday’s statement is that the Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, could approve proposals to authorize same-sex ceremonies at its convention this summer.
The primates are “preparing the world for it to happen, if it does,” he said.
Hopkins, of Glenn Dale, Md., is president of Integrity, a gay and lesbian caucus that will have convention delegates submit a measure to allow blessings of same-sex couples. The Diocese of California is making a similar proposal.
A report in March to the U.S. bishops recommended that no action be taken on gay issues.
The debate facing the Episcopal Church could get even more tense depending on the results of a church election June 7 for the next bishop of New Hampshire. The only local candidate among four nominees is Canon V. Gene Robinson, who is gay and lives openly with a male partner.
Whichever candidate wins will require consent from the national convention: Robinson would be the first openly non-celibate gay bishop to be elected in Anglican history.
The place of active homosexuals in the church has deeply divided the Anglican Communion, which represents 77 million people worldwide, including 2.3 million members of the Episcopal Church.
The conservative-liberal disagreement has already caused small splits in the United States and Canada, and raises the specter of a larger divide around the world with more liberal churches in the North America and Western Europe set against more conservative churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The Anglican Communion’s leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has drawn conservative criticism for ordaining a homosexual when he was primate of the Church in Wales.
Despite his own views, Williams has pledged to affirm a declaration of the 1998 Lambeth Conference -- a meeting of all the world’s Anglican bishops -- that said homosexual relations are incompatible with Scripture.
The conservative part of the Brazil message reflected a talk at the meeting by Archbishop Drexel Gomez of Nassau, Bahamas, who summarized a 60-page report, “True Union in the Body?” he commissioned from theologians.
Gomez’s report has important implications because it asserts that Anglicans are justified in withdrawing recognition from any national branch guilty of the schismatic act of approving same-sex blessings.
Even after the 1998 Lambeth declaration, some U.S. bishops continued gay ordinations and the dioceses of Delaware and Kansas authorized same-sex blessings -- as did Canada’s diocese in Vancouver, B.C.
In response, the bishop in the Yukon offered to take conservative congregations in British Columbia under his wing (some have agreed), and Anglican primates in Rwanda and Southeast Asia are sponsoring a mission to U.S. Episcopalians who reject liberal bishops.