Several leading liberal Episcopalians said yesterday that they would rather accept a schism than accede to a demand from leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion for what they view as an unconscionable rollback of the U.S. church's position on gay rights.
The defiant reaction to the communique issued by the primates, or heads, of the Anglican Communion's 38 national churches on Monday at the conclusion of a weeklong meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, reflected a growing feeling on both sides of the dispute that time for compromise is running out.
"Yes, I would accept schism," said Bishop Steven Charleston, president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "I would be willing to accept being told I'm not in communion with places like Nigeria if it meant I could continue to be in a position of justice and morality. If the price I pay is that I'm not considered to be part of a flawed communion, then so be it."
Conservative primates, many from developing countries, insisted in Dar es Salaam that the 2.3-million-member U.S. church must comply with the 77-million-member communion's position that "homosexual practice" is "incompatible with Scripture." They sought and won a Sept. 30 deadline for U.S. bishops to pledge to stop authorizing rites of blessing for same-sex couples and to promise not to consecrate any more gay bishops since the election of V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire in 2003.
U.S. conservatives hailed the communique. Martyn Minns, of Truro Church in Fairfax, one of 15 Northern Virginia congregations that have voted since 2005 to separate from the Episcopal Church, said it gives the U.S. church just "one last chance."
"It says that the American church is invited to be part of the Anglican Communion, but if it chooses not to, it can walk its own way," Minns said by telephone from London during a stopover on his return from the Tanzania meeting.
The communique also recommends against litigation to settle property disputes between Episcopal dioceses and departing congregations. Minns, now a bishop in a missionary branch of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, said he hoped that the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, Peter Lee, would agree to mediation.
But Patrick Getlein, spokesman for the Virginia diocese, said it has no plan to drop its legal claims. The departures "set in motion a spiritual and legal conflict that at this point remains unresolved," he said.
Some Episcopalians who support gay rights in the church said they are waiting to hear from the U.S. church's presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who signed the communique.
"My assumption is she's coming home to tell us how it can work," said Jim Naughton, a spokesman for the Washington diocese. "And since she's amassed a lot of goodwill in a short time, maybe she can persuade us -- though it will be a hard sell."
Other liberals said it is time to admit that they have been outmaneuvered.
"The American church has been very skillfully and strategically painted into a corner where we really need to face a "Sophie's Choice" of staying true to our understanding of the inclusive gospel or staying true to our commitment to being a constituent member of the Anglican Communion," said the Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, a 33-year-old gay rights advocacy group within the church.
Russell said the U.S. church has done all it can to avoid that choice. "The idea that the criteria for being in communion with each other is you must agree down the line on doctrinal points -- that has never been how Anglicans have operated," she said. Nevertheless, Russell said, her group will urge U.S. bishops, who are scheduled to meet next month at an Episcopal retreat center near Houston, to "utterly reject" the Anglican demands.
The Rev. Mark Harris, a retired priest and liberal blogger who sits on the Episcopal Church's 40-member Executive Council, said that U.S. bishops may have to tell the Anglican Communion that they cannot speak for the entire U.S. church, which has a democratic structure that includes lay people and priests in decision-making.
"Part of the courage needed for the future is to stand by what we believe is right, and stand by the consequences," he said.