Anglican Leader Plays Down Schism

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 22, 2007

The head of the Anglican Communion offered words of encouragement yesterday to U.S. Episcopal bishops under fire for their support of gay men and lesbians, saying they aren't facing an "ultimatum," even as other leaders of the worldwide church insisted the Americans are teetering on being forced out of the communion.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made his comments at the end of his two-day visit with bishops of the Episcopal Church -- the U.S. branch of the communion -- who are meeting in New Orleans. The key topic at the conference was the request made this year by the heads of other branches of the communion that the U.S. church promise to halt the approval of gay bishops and the authorization of same-sex marriage rites.

A response was requested by Sept. 30. That has been viewed by many, particularly conservatives, as a major deadline in a years-long standoff in the Episcopal Church over what the Bible says about sexuality and how to view Jesus.

"Despite what has been claimed, there is no ultimatum involved," Williams said at a news conference yesterday afternoon, the Associated Press reported. "It has been represented sadly as a set of demands and deadlines. It was not that way. We are inevitably in a position of compromise."

Williams left the United States, but the bishops will meet again Monday and Tuesday, at which point they are likely to release a response.

The apparent contradiction between Williams and other Anglican leaders highlights the lack of central authority in the communion, a loose family of 77 million members. Even as debate rages within the communion over scripture and sexuality, there is no governing figure or voting body with the power to force a clear conclusion.

Some say the 38 Anglican leaders, called primates, who head branches that include the large Nigerian and English churches, have no authority under Anglicanism to enforce sanctions against the U.S. church. Others say Williams's authority is limited, including his characterization that the Americans don't face a deadline.

"This is part of the messiness of Anglicanism: Do the primates have the power to vote the American church off Anglican island? We maintain they do not," said the Rev. Susan Russell, a California priest who heads Integrity, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Episcopalians.

Russell said she was encouraged by Williams's comments at the news conference, where several conservative-leaning bishops also sounded conciliatory.

"My take is there are some who are invested in pulling off this schism. And they have nothing to gain by us being in conversation," Russell said. Williams "just took the wind out of their sails."

The head of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East characterized things differently.

"My friends, if you really believe that the truth revealed to you is different from that shown to the rest of the Communion, then you need to uphold that claim with boldness even at the risk of losing unity," Bishop Mouneer Anis told the other bishops, according to an official transcript released by the communion.

He continued: "If you think it is right and necessary to ordain and consecrate practicing homosexuals and that you should bless same-sex partnerships or even marriages, you should be true to what you believe is right and accept the consequences. . . . It would be extremely difficult to sit around one table when you have already decided the outcome of the discussion and when you ignore the many voices, warnings and appeals from around the Communion."

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