Ever since the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire four years ago, forecasts of a rupture over homosexuality within the church or with the rest of the global Anglican Communion accompanied each big church meeting, only to fade.
But as the bishops of the Episcopal Church approach their semiannual meeting this week in New Orleans, the predictions are being taken very seriously.
At the top of the agenda for the Sept. 20-25 gathering will be a directive issued by the leaders of the Anglican Communion to stop consecrating openly gay and lesbian bishops and to ban blessings of same-sex unions or risk a diminished status in the communion, the world’s third-largest Christian denomination.
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, who is the spiritual leader of the communion, will attend the meeting. It will be the first time Archbishop Williams has met with the church’s House of Bishops since the 2003 consecration of the gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The communion’s directive asks for a response from the Episcopal Church by Sept. 30.
In interviews last week, bishops and church experts who hold a range of views on homosexuality said they expected the House of Bishops would stop short, perhaps far short, of meeting the directive’s demands. That could widen rifts, as several dioceses have said they would break away from the Episcopal Church and primates of several provinces, or regions, have spoken of leaving the global communion.
“I think the meeting will add some clarity to what has already taken place,” said Bishop Kirk S. Smith of Arizona. “I think clearly there is going to be some sort of exodus from the communion.”
Currently, the Episcopal Church urges, but does not require, dioceses and bishops to refrain from electing openly gay and lesbian bishops. None have been elected since Bishop Robinson, but the Rev. Tracey Lind, who is a lesbian, is among the candidates to become the new bishop of Chicago.
The church does not have rites of blessing for same-sex unions, but some individual bishops permit blessing ceremonies in their dioceses.
At a February meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, three dozen primates of the Anglican Communion issued the directive on gay bishops and same-sex unions. They also demanded that the Episcopal Church create a parallel leadership structure to serve the conservative minority of Episcopalians who oppose their church’s liberal stance on homosexuality.
Conservative Anglicans hailed the primates’ directive as an affirmation of traditional biblical teachings on homosexuality for the world’s 77 million Anglicans, of whom 2.4 million are Episcopalians.
A month later, Episcopal bishops rejected the parallel structure, saying it would compromise the church’s autonomy. Since then, several more parishes among the 7,700 Episcopal congregations in the United States have left the church and placed themselves under the authority of foreign bishops, mostly in Africa.
Moreover, the provinces of Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda, passionate critics of the Episcopal Church, have consecrated conservative American clergy as their bishops in the United States to serve disaffected congregations, a move Episcopal Church leaders view as a violation of the church’s authority.
“There already is a separation,” said the Rev. William Sachs, director of the Center for Reconciliation and Mission at St. Stephen’s Church in Richmond, Va. “The question is, how far does it spread?”
The answer may soon become apparent. Several dissident dioceses, like Quincy, Ill., San Joaquin, Calif., and Pittsburgh, are taking steps to align themselves with a foreign province, should the Episcopal bishops refuse the terms of the directive, said Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, who leads a network of conservatives seeking alternative oversight. Such departures would probably lead to years of litigation over church property, experts said.
Unlike bishops in provinces that are more hierarchical, bishops in the Episcopal Church cannot legislate on behalf of the church, experts said. Only the church’s General Convention can do that, they said, and its next meeting is in 2009.
Still, the bishops could overturn their earlier decision regarding the alternative oversight structure or state that they would categorically refuse to approve the election of openly gay and lesbian clergy members to the episcopate.
Few expect that to happen, and some bishops, including some theological conservatives, take issue with outsiders telling the American church what to do.
“I think they’re pushing us because they want to polarize the issue,” said Bishop Henry Parsley of Alabama, who did not vote for Bishop Robinson’s consecration. “The primates want us to say that we don’t approve public rites of blessing, and we have not done that. They don’t want us to approve gay bishops in committed relationships, and the 2006 general convention resolution makes that unlikely. Basically, what I’m saying is that what they are asking is essentially already the case.” If the bishops take such a position, that would amount to a rejection of the directive. Archbishop Williams would “have a hard time carrying on with business as usual,” said the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading Episcopal conservative and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.
The archbishop might then take steps to reduce the Episcopal Church’s role and representation in the communion, Mr. Radner and others said.
Some African primates have also spoken openly about leaving the Anglican Communion, which would create great disarray in their provinces, as not all their bishops or clergy are willing to break with the communion over this issue, Episcopal bishops and experts said.
“This is the most significant meeting in the last three years,” Mr. Radner said. “I’m not saying it will resolve everything, but it will set in motion responses that have been brewing for a long time. It doesn’t matter what happens, there’s going to be response from a whole range of folks in the Anglican Communion that will determine the future of communion.”
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Alexander Hodgins, after a September 16, 2007 article by Neela Banerjee in The New York Times