While there was no immediate confirmation the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States would withdraw temporarily from the Anglican Consultative Council, the request marked the first formal split in the communion over issues of sexuality and biblical authority.
The Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. province of Anglicanism, precipitated the rift when it consecrated an openly gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire in November 2003. Furthermore, the diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, Canada, became the first in the communion to adopt a motion allowing its churches to bless same-sex unions in 2002.
The request was in a six-page communique issued late Thursday at the end of a week-long annual meeting in Newry, North Ireland attended by 35 of the 38 primates of national and regional churches that comprise the 77-million member Anglican communion.
In the statement, bishops agreed to call upon the U.S. and Canadian churches to “voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council for the period leading up to the next Lambeth Conference,” an international Anglican gathering to be held in 2008.
The North Americans were asked not to attend the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, which is a body of bishops, priests and lay people from national Anglican churches who meet and consult in between the once-a-decade Lambeth Conferences for the primates.
At the same time, Anglican leaders also recommended allowing the North American churches to send representatives to the council’s gathering in June to explain their stance on homosexuality. The communique also urged the North American churches’ leaders to persuade their dioceses to refrain from similar actions in the future.
“In the meantime, we ask our fellow primates to use their best influence to persuade their brothers and sisters to exercise a moratorium on public rites of blessing for same-sex unions and on the consecration of any bishop living in a sexual relationship outside Christian marriage,” the statement said.
Conservatives who lead the Anglican Communion Network, which represents dissenting Episcopal dioceses and churches in the United States, argued that the primates’ request meant that the two North American churches “have been effectively suspended” from the global communion.
But James Naughton, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., and a supporter of Robinson’s, disagreed with this assessment, calling the communique an “elegant compromise.” Naughton said Episcopalians could easily accept temporary withdrawal from the council, if it would create more time for Anglicans to find ways to remain unified, the AP reported.
The communique largely reaffirmed a resolution adopted by all Anglican bishops in 1998 declaring that gay sex was “incompatible with Scripture” and opposed gay ordinations and same-sex blessings, the AP reported.
Still, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, head of the Episcopal Church, stressed in a brief statement after Thursday’s meeting that discussions were continuing.
“These days have not been easy for any of us and the communique reflects a great deal of prayer and the strong desire to find a way forward as a communion in the midst of deep differences which have been brought into sharp relief around the subject of homosexuality,” he said.
The communique “was written with a view to making room for a wide variety of perspectives,” Griswold added.
The communique said many of the 35 primates who met this week were “deeply alarmed that the standard of Christian teaching on matters of human sexuality” expressed in that 1998 resolution had “been seriously undermined by the recent developments in North America.”