Conservative Anglican Leaders Warn of a Schism

An on-going struggle to fight homosexuality
Jul 26, 2003 12:16 AM EDT

FAIRFAX, Va. — Five Anglican archbishops from Africa, Asia and Australia met here today with more than 50 conservative American Episcopalians to convey a warning that if the Episcopal Church USA votes at its convention to accept a gay bishop or to bless same-sex unions, it would "precipitate a dramatic realignment of the church."

The meeting at a church here further solidified an emerging alliance between conservative Episcopal bishops in the United States and Anglican leaders from the developing world, where the church is growing most rapidly. They share a sense of alienation from the Anglican dioceses in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, England, Wales and South Africa that have either taken stands in support of gay people or at least not denounced homosexuality.

Many church leaders in Africa, Asia and South America say that homosexuality violates a strict interpretation of Scripture and their cultural mores.

In a statement released after the meeting, the participants said if the Episcopal Church USA approved of gay bishops or same-sex blessings at its convention next week, it would cause a "constitutional crisis" for the Anglican Church, which has 79 million members internationally.

They said that a "yes" on either vote would lead "a majority of primates" — the archbishops who lead Anglican provinces around the world — to convene an "extraordinary meeting" where they would announce their response.

But they were intentionally vague about what actions they would take if either vote passes because they said that they did not want to reveal their strategy before the Episcopal convention, which opens on Wednesday in Minneapolis.

The Most Rev. Peter Akinola, archbishop of Nigeria, acknowledged at a news conference outside Truro Episcopal Church here that in the past, the conservative bloc had not matched its protests with action.

"Let me assure you this time things are going to be different," the archbishop said. "We have come to what I might describe as a crossroads, and these events are going to determine the future and fate of our communion."

Also at the meeting were the archbishops of Rwanda, Central Africa, Southeast Asia and Sydney. About 15 American bishops attended, as well as more than a dozen American rectors, several theologians and laypeople.

The long-running debate over homosexuality, already roiling the church in England and Canada, erupted again in the United States last month when the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected as its next bishop the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, a priest who lives openly with his gay partner. He is well known and liked in New Hampshire, where he has ministered for 16 years.

Episcopalians there say they simply chose the best candidate.

According to Episcopal Church rules, newly elected bishops must be affirmed at the church's general convention by a majority of bishops, clergy and laypeople. Both sides on the gay issue have been lobbying the convention delegates. Supporters of Bishop-elect Robinson say his opponents' allusions to schism are merely part of the lobbying campaign.

The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, the president of Integrity, an alliance of gay Episcopalians, observed the news conference and said in an interview afterward:

"They're trying to influence the convention by threat. Despite their protests to the contrary, any church-splitting would be their responsibility. There is no reason for this to have to split the Anglican Communion."

In his first response to the outcry from abroad, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church USA, sent a letter on Tuesday to Anglican primates in which he acknowledged "how problematic this election is for some of you, as well as for some members of my own church."

But he said that the election of an openly gay bishop was not surprising for the church in the United States and that each diocese had the authority to select its own bishop.

"In our part of the world, there is an acknowledgment that some men and women find that their deepest affections are ordered to members of the same sex," he wrote.

"Each of us has to interpret the gospel in our own context and within the particular reality of our own Province; there is no such thing as a neutral reading of Scripture. While we all accept the authority of Scripture, we interpret various passages in different ways."

To the bishops and primates who have threatened a break in communion, he said that "declarations of being `in' or `out' of communion with one another may assuage our anger or our fear," but undermine the message of the gospel to "our broken and divided world."

The conservatives gathered here cast themselves as the "Anglican mainstream," and said that those who support homosexuality would be choosing to separate themselves from the church.

"The decision to move in a direction away from the historic teachings of the church is itself schismatic," said the Rev. Christopher Seitz, a professor of divinity at the University of St. Andrew's, Scotland.

Dr. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, said while the group could not be specific about its plans, members could express their disgust with the Episcopal Church USA by breaking with their dioceses and bishops and redirecting money.