Anglican Leader Urges Church To Find Accord Amid Turmoil

By Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 21, 2007

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Communion, made a rare visit yesterday to a meeting of Episcopal bishops to urge them to compromise in the face of international pressure over their approval of same-sex unions and gay clergy.

The appearance of Archbishop Rowan Williams yesterday and today in New Orleans at the biannual bishops' meeting of the Episcopal Church, the Communion's U.S. branch, underscores the gravity of the confrontation between worldwide Anglican leaders and bishops. The bishops are discussing "requests" the leaders made in February that the U.S. church backtrack from its increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians. A response was requested by Sept. 30.

The meeting began yesterday and ends Tuesday.

The infighting that has raged for years in the Episcopal Church over Scripture and sexuality has centered on left vs. right. But as the meeting approached, focus shifted to those in the middle, who experts say might hold the answer to how far the centuries-old church -- and perhaps other denominations -- might splinter.

One of the most visible middle-grounders at the meeting is Louisiana Bishop Charles E. Jenkins, who voted against the controversial confirmation in 2003 of openly gay New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson. Saying that he is desperate to turn the Communion's attention toward serving the poor, Jenkins released a letter this week signed by 11 like-minded bishops pledging "to sacrifice" for the church to remain together.

No one expects the mostly liberal Episcopal Church to fully give in. Although thousands of Episcopalians have left the U.S. church in recent years -- including those in 19 Virginia congregations -- to join more conservative branches of the Communion based overseas, U.S. church leaders have generally dismissed them as a dissident minority.

But four U.S. dioceses recently said they might try to leave if they don't like what happens at the meeting in New Orleans. At least a half-dozen bishops sympathize with that position. These are mostly bishops who have echoed conservatives' concerns that Jesus's primacy is being watered down but who think the global debate about how to read the Bible is an enduring one. The fence-sitting bishops have been the target of an intense lobbying campaign.

Hoping to keep the Episcopal Church from losing many more members -- and to keep it in the good graces of the Communion -- liberals have been courting the middle-ground bishops. Written drafts that attempt to stake out a theological middle ground have been circulating, insiders say.

"They are getting phone calls from folks on the progressive side," said Peter Frank, spokesman for the Anglican Communion Network, a group of 10 Episcopal dioceses with almost 200,000 members whose goal is to "ensure an orthodox Anglican Province in North America." However, Frank said, "this has defied . . . a middle point. That's what's been so hard for everyone."

But more is at stake than the 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church, or even Anglicanism, experts say. Other faith groups, including Presbyterians, Muslims and Jews, are struggling with similar debates about issues such as whether Scripture should be taken in historical context and how much weight should be given to centuries-old interpretations.

Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, wrote this week in the National Catholic Reporter: "The struggle going on inside the Anglican Communion . . . is not peculiar to Anglicanism. The issue is in the air we breathe. The Anglicans simply got there earlier than most. And so they may well become a model to the rest of us how to handle such questions."

"The mainline Protestant denominations are watching this very nervously," said Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University.

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