The world’s top-ranking Anglican Communion archbishops Thursday urged the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada to voluntarily withdraw from a key global council because of the North Americans’ liberal views on homosexuality.
If the request is granted, it will be the first official breach in the 77-million member worldwide Anglican Communion since the Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay priest in 2003 as bishop of New Hampshire, and since both the U.S. and Canadian churches began to permit the blessing of same-sex unions over the last several years.
In a communique issued after a three-day closed-door summit near Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Anglican primates -- archbishops of national Anglican churches -- stopped short of calling for the ouster of the communion’s two North American member churches.
Instead, the primates committed themselves to using “their best influence” to persuade bishops and priests in the U.S. and Canada to observe a three-year moratorium on blessings of same-sex unions and installing as bishop anyone living in a sexual relationship outside a traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
Meanwhile, they want the North Americans to withdraw from a key policy body known as the Anglican Consultative Council. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the 38 national Anglicans churches are self-governing and their spiritual leader, the archbishop of Canterbury, does not have the power to dictate to them.
The church conservatives hope the Americans and Canadians will change their views on homosexuality by 2008, when the world’s Anglican bishops are scheduled to convene for their once-a-decade meeting in England.
In a statement released Thursday, the U.S. presiding bishop and primate, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, did not specify whether the U.S. church would withdraw from the consulting council over the three years.
Griswold said the primates’ recommendations “would not please everyone.” But in clearly diplomatic language, he said the report showed there was more that unites the worldwide church than divides it.
Griswold can continue to participate in the international primates’ meetings.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is trying to make peace between conservatives, particularly in Africa, Asia and South America, and the more liberal Europeans and North Americans.
In their statement from Northern Ireland, the primates reaffirmed a 1998 church statement that same-sex is incompatible with Scripture. At that time, the bishops said they could not recommend the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, although they urged continued discussion about such issues.
“Many primates have been deeply alarmed that the standard of Christian teaching on matters of human sexuality ... has been seriously undermined by the recent developments in North America,” the primates said Thursday.
But they emphasized that they continued to be “unreservedly” committed to pastoral support for gays and lesbians. “The victimization or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered toward people of the same sex is anathema to us,” they wrote.
The issue of gay leaders in the church came to a head in 2003 when the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, consecrated the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in a same-sex relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire.
The Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the conservative American Anglican Council, in a telephone interview from Northern Ireland, said the decision to ask U.S. and Canadian churches to withdraw from the international council was tantamount to “reduced membership status.”
“We feel it offers a way forward. It gives the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada an opportunity to reflect on where they are and ... to make some decisions about whether they want to walk together with the communion or walk apart.”
In Los Angeles, Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno endorsed the withdrawal of U.S. participation in the international Anglican body as a way of maintaining unity in the short run. He said he believed that Griswold could continue to represent the U.S. church in the global communion through participation in the primates’ meetings.
Bruno also said that he would maintain a previously announced personal moratorium on blessing same sex unions, but he would not prohibit his priests from performing such rites until the national church reconsidered the issue.
The Rev. Susan Russell of Pasadena, president of Integrity, a national Episcopal gay and lesbian advocacy organization, said the call for a moratorium on blessing same-sex unions and consecrating gay and lesbian bishops in monogamous same-sex relationships was “problematic.” But she said the primates’ recommendations were “clearly not as draconian as forecast.”