Episcopal leaders in North America declined yesterday to apologize for endorsing the ordination of homosexual bishops and same-sex unions despite growing threats of a schism with other branches Anglican church, which has 77 million members worldwide.
The election of an American gay bishop and the blessing of same sex unions in the United States and in Canada have put the U.S. Episcopal Church on a collision course with the rest of the Anglican Communion. A conference of church leaders meeting in Northern Ireland on Thursday called on the Canadian and U.S. churches to voluntarily withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council, a key decision-making body, until the controversy is resolved.
After a crisis meeting of the leaders of 35 Anglican national churches, the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said that any lasting solution to the crisis would "require people to say somewhere along the line, 'Yes, we were wrong.' " Williams, who is the titular leader of the worldwide church, has been under intense pressure from conservative bishops to crack down on the U.S. and Canadian churches.
The U.S. Episcopal Church was founded in 1789 as the direct descendant of the Anglican Church in the 13 colonies, and now has about 2.3 million members. Long-simmering tensions over the more liberal policies of the U.S. church came to a head in 2003 when an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, was consecrated bishop of New Hampshire.
While U.S. bishops have repeatedly called for dialogue with other churches, they have given no indication that they are prepared to back down in the dispute. In a statement, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said that the Episcopal Church had "sought to act with integrity." Griswold told the BBC that Robinson's appointment as bishop of New Hampshire had been "right and proper."
U.S. church officials questioned whether the other church leaders had the right to request that the American church withdraw from the consultative council, which is due to meet in June in the English town of Nottingham. An Episcopal Church spokeswoman, Rev. Jan Nunley, said such a step should properly be taken by the consultative council itself.
Griswold, who attended the Northern Ireland meeting, will consult with his fellow bishops on the next step, Nunley said.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where power flows from the pope, the Anglican Church functions as a decentralized federation of largely autonomous churches. American bishops recognize the archbishop of Canterbury as the first among equals, but do not feel subordinate to him in an administrative or doctrinal sense.