The Anglican Church slapped sanctions on its U.S. branch for supporting same-sex marriage, averting a formal schism in world's third largest Christian denomination. (Reuters)

For the first time, the global organizing body of Anglicans has punished the Episcopal Church, following years of heated debate with the American church over homosexuality, same-sex marriage and the role of women.

The Anglican Communion’s announcement Thursday that it would suspend its U.S. branch for three years from key voting positions was seen as a blow to the Episcopal Church, which allows its clergy to perform same-sex marriages and this summer voted to include the rite in its church laws.

It was also seen as a victory for conservative Anglicans, especially those in Africa,, who for years have been pressing the Anglican Communion to discipline the U.S. body.

“The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the leaders of the Anglican Communion, which represents 44 national churches, said in a statement during a meeting in Canterbury. “The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”

Although it’s too early to predict what will happen three years from now, when the Episcopal Church could vote on its response to the suspension at its denomination-wide meeting, observers say it is unlikely that the U.S. church will reverse its position on same-sex marriage. This could prompt the Anglicans to continue the suspension or make it even harsher, not allowing the Episcopal Church to fill key positions on the global body.

“I don’t believe they will be ‘kicked out’ or exiled, but they will continue to be at a distance if they don’t change their direction,” said Jeff Walton, communications manager for the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a conservative Washington think tank that is frequently critical of mainline denominations.

The decision in England will have little impact on Episcopalians in the pews, who have grown increasingly liberal after the 2003 consecration of the openly gay priest Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire. That action prompted dozens of U.S. churches to break off and declare their allegiance to conservative rival groups.

In a 2013 interview, journalist Bill Press sits with Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay, ordained bishop, to talk about the Bible's interpretation of homosexuality (Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital)

Michael Curry, the Episcopal Church’s newly-elected presiding bishop told the other primates –top bishops from each of the national churches — that the Anglican’s sanction would be received painfully by many in the U.S. denomination.

In remarks he has made available to Episcopal News Service, Curry said the Episcopal Church has a “commitment to be an inclusive church.”

“I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society,” Curry, the church’s first African American presiding bishop, told the primates. “And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.”

The Anglican Communion is a global family of churches that historically descended from the missionary efforts of the Church of England. Unlike the Catholic Church, Anglicans do not have a hierarchical head in a pope, but it has a leader in Canterbury that gathers church leaders together. The constituent churches, which preside over a membership of about 85 million, are self-governing.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby announced in September that he had summoned Anglican leaders to a special meeting, seen as an attempt to stop a larger Anglican schism. A spokeswoman for Welby said he will be holding a news conference Friday.

Ahead of the meetings this week, some expected the primates on the more conservative end of the church to walk out of the meetings if the Episcopal Church was not sanctioned.

Like other mainline denominations, the Episcopal Church, home to U.S. presidents and the nation’s elite, has struggled to fill its pews in recent years. It has lost more than 20 percent of its members since it consecrated Robinson, and new statistics suggest that membership continues to fall, dropping 2.7 percent from 2013 to about 1.8 million U.S. members in 2014.

Robinson declined media interviews on Thursday, writing, “Because the Primates’ action was taken in response to something done by the entire Episcopal Church, not by me, I will let our Presiding Bishop and others speak on behalf of our church.”

A request for further comment from the Episcopal Church was not immediately returned on Thursday.

The Communion has been divided globally and in the United States for years over issues from gay rights to women’s ordination to how to read the Bible. The dispute has led to multimillion-dollar lawsuits over who has the right to church properties. Episcopalians and breakaway Anglicans in Falls Church were embattled over tens of millions of dollars in property, a court dispute which the Episcopal Church eventually won.

The suspension stipulates that the Episcopal Church can no longer represent the Anglican Communion on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee or take part in decisionmaking “on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion.”

The primates on the more conservative end of the church wanted the Episcopal Church’s full withdrawal from the Communion for three years, a period during which they would not be able to be present or vote at meetings, according to a spokesperson for Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church of North America, a breakaway group of conservative churches in the U.S. The group has not been formally recognized by the Anglican Communion.

Also, the Anglican Church of Canada, which has allowed same-sex union blessings and will be voting on same-sex marriage at its general synod in July, was not included in the sanctions, which the conservative primates found unacceptable.

“The sanctions placed on the Episcopal Church are strong, but they are not strong enough. It took many steps for the Anglican Communion to come to this current crisis,” said Beach, who was included in the primates meetings. “This is a good step back in the right direction, but it will take many more if the Communion is to be restored.”

Episcopalians have been aware that the U.S. body could be penalized, said Jim Naughton, a communications consultant working largely in the Episcopal Church. “The sanctions against the Episcopal Church are trifling compared to what LGBT Christians suffer, and we shouldn’t be whining about the nature of the sanctions,” he said.

But Naughton said he believes the primates could be exceeding their authority.

“I’m just very puzzled about where they think they have the authority to require these things,” Naughton said. “This looks too much like a power grab to go down easily.”

The debate represents a larger global tension between Christians largely in places such as the United States and Europe and Christians in places such as Africa.

The active membership of the U.S., Canadian and British Anglican churches combined is less than the number the Nigerian church, which has roughly 20 million members, has added in the past 15 years, according to Philip Jenkins, historian at Baylor University.

“Most Christian denominations have the bulk of their members in the Global South, so they will be looking at this very carefully,” Jenkins said.