Senior Anglican leaders in the United States were drafting a statement Sunday night in an urgent attempt to find a compromise between warring factions within the worldwide Communion.
Bishops meeting at their semi-annual gathering in New Orleans are hoping to find a way to maintain a degree of unity within the Anglican Communion by keeping The Episcopal Church – the U.S. arm of Anglicanism – within the worldwide church body.
The matter will be further discussed at the U.S. House of Bishops meeting on Monday, and it is believed that some compromise will be sought to allow liberal clergy to continue offering pastoral support to gay couples while imposing a ban on formal blessing services for homosexual couples as well as promising not to appoint any more openly gay bishops.
The latest efforts come amid fierce criticism from conservative members of the communion over U.S. church’s liberal stance on homosexuality. Controversy had heightened within the 77 million-member Anglican Communion when The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop – V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire – in 2003. After years of disputes, Anglican leaders, meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in February, had asked The Episcopal Church to respond to their request that they put a stop to ordaining homosexual bishops and blessing same-sex marriages by Sept. 30.
While many interpreted the request to be an ultimatum, the spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, clarified last week that it was not.
"The primates asked for a response by September 30 simply because we were aware that this was the meeting of the House likely to be formulating such a response,” he explained in a statement, referring to the gathering of the Episcopal House of Bishops being held Sept. 20-25 in New Orleans. “The ACC and Primates Joint Standing Committee will be reading and digesting what the Bishops have to say, and will let me know their thoughts on it early next week."
The communiqué issued by conservative Anglican leaders in February is "a place to start", Williams continued. "Some primates would give a more robust interpretation of the demands, some less. It has been presented as a set of demands and indeed intrusions and impositions; I don't think that's what the primates had in mind and that means we are inevitably in the business of compromise. What is brought before us will be scrutinized, thought about, reflected, digested."
He added: “I hope these days will result in a constructive and fresh way forward for all of us.”
A formal response to the Dar es Salaam communiqué is now expected to be made by February.
During his visit to New Orleans last week, Williams also issued a firm message to conservative members of The Episcopal Church that they should remain inside of the official U.S. branch of the communion and not join other conservative African churches looking to reach out to them.
Williams, who is considered the “first among equals,” rebuked African efforts to recruit dissident parishes in the United States and rebutted calls for next year’s decennial conference of Anglican leaders to be postponed in light of the current threat of schism within the communion.
The archbishop joined the meeting of bishops on Thursday and Friday, but was criticized by conservative Episcopal bishops who said Williams refused to see them and did not return any of their calls during his entire U.S. visit.
It has been reported that a number of conservative bishops have now left the meeting and plan to gather in Pittsburgh this week to discuss their next steps. There is speculation that they will seek oversight from an African province.
Bishop Bob Duncan of Pittsburgh expressed his belief that around five of the U.S. church body's 112 dioceses would now seek to affiliate outside the country.
However, Duncan, who serves as moderator of the breakaway Anglican Communion Network, made a call for unity, saying: “We are inevitably in the business of compromise ... if we are able to get this right, to live with it in some structure, in a godly way, we will have done something for the whole Christian community.”
The House of Bishops is due to conclude its meetings on Tuesday.
Maria Mackay in London contributed to this report.