By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007
The nation's Episcopal bishops have rejected a key demand from the larger Anglican Communion, saying a plan to place discontented U.S. parishes under international leadership could do permanent harm to the American church.
The rejection increases the likelihood that Anglican leaders will seek in the coming months to demote or expel the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church from the 77 million-member, worldwide family of churches descended from the Church of England.
But U.S. bishops, though divided on underlying issues of theology and sexuality, described themselves yesterday as increasingly united against foreign interference in the internal governance of their church.
The plan to put conservative parishes under an international "pastoral council" would replace local governance with "a distant and unaccountable group of prelates" for "the first time since our separation from the papacy in the 16th century," the U.S. bishops said in a written resolution. "We cannot accept what would be injurious to this Church and could well lead to its permanent division."
The bishops did not respond to other demands issued in Tanzania last month by the primates, or heads, of the Anglican Communion's 38 constituent churches. But three formal resolutions, passed overwhelmingly by the American bishops after five days of private discussion and prayer in Navasota, Tex., were politely defiant.
"We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God's children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ's Church," one of the resolutions said.
Instead of accepting or rejecting the primates' call for the U.S. church to stop blessing same-sex couples and refrain from consecrating any more gay bishops, the American bishops requested an urgent, face-to-face meeting with the Anglican Communion's highest officials, including Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
The presiding bishop of the U.S. church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, told reporters yesterday that during the Tanzania meeting she invited Williams to visit the United States this year, and that he said his schedule was full.
That answer "did not sit well" with the U.S. bishops, said Washington Bishop John B. Chane, who noted that the resolution asking for an urgent meeting with Williams was written by a conservative bishop, John Howe of Central Florida, and received unanimous approval.
Williams did not immediately respond to the request. "This initial response of the House of Bishops is discouraging and indicates the need for further discussion and clarification," he said in a brief statement. "Some important questions have still to be addressed. No one is underestimating the challenges ahead."
Tensions within the Episcopal Church, and between the Episcopal Church and other parts of the Anglican Communion, have mounted since Episcopalians in New Hampshire elected V. Eugene Robinson, a priest living openly with another man, as their bishop in 2003.
More than 100 congregations, including 15 in Northern Virginia, have voted to separate from the U.S. church in the past four years. Many view the consecration of a gay bishop as the culmination of a liberal theological shift that goes back to the 1970s, when the church began ordaining women and revised its Book of Common Prayer.
The divisions in the U.S. church coincide with a huge demographic change in the communion, which has seen explosive growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Conservative primates in such countries as Nigeria and Uganda have sympathized with U.S. conservatives and taken some American parishes under their wing.
In Tanzania, the primates gave the U.S. bishops until Sept. 30 to meet their demands or face unspecified "consequences," which could include not being invited to the next worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops at Britain's Lambeth Palace in 2008.
Jefferts Schori joined the other primates in issuing the Tanzania communique. But she said yesterday that her agreement consisted only of a promise to bring it back for consideration. She described the bishops' action as a recommendation to the entire U.S. church, and noted that the bishops will meet again in September.
Chane, who is widely viewed as a liberal bishop, said the primates' demands "galvanized" his colleagues. "I think the primates underestimated how the bishops would respond, because until now we've been rather passive," he said. "My personal feeling is, they overplayed their hand."
Martyn Minns, bishop of a Virginia-based mission of the Church of Nigeria and a leading U.S. conservative, said that after Tanzania, "I thought there was some genuine hope that we'd find a way forward, and this has upset that quite significantly."
Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.