Anglicans' Crisis Over Gays

The leader of the global Anglican Communion faced enormous pressure Wednesday to repudiate recent moves in North America toward acceptance of gay relationships as world Anglican leaders gathered for an emergency meeting seeking reconciliation.

Thirty-seven Anglican leaders — called primates — began the two-day meeting in Lambeth Palace, the historic London building where the Anglican Communion was formed, after conservative leaders threatened to leave the association over the issue of homosexuality.

The communion's spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, called the unprecedented meeting in August after a decision by the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglicans, to ratify the election of its first openly gay bishop, which sparked the crisis.

Williams' spokesman, the Rev. Jonathan Jennings, told reporters that the mood was "relaxed" as the leaders met Wednesday morning in the palace chapel. Officials confirmed that one primate — Bishop Ignacio C. Soliba of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines — did not attend, because of a previous commitment.

The closed meeting began with prayers and Bible study, then each primate was given up to five minutes to make a statement, said Canon James Rosenthal, communications director of the Anglican Communion.

He did not comment on the content of the statements. An announcement of the meeting's outcome was not expected until late Thursday, but Anglican leaders from both sides of the debate have been meeting in London all week to lobby for support.

At a worship service Tuesday night organized by pro-gay rights British Anglicans, the Rev. Daniel Webster of the Diocese of Utah in the United States said the conservatives are sending a wrong message: "Conform or you're not welcome."

"That is not the traditional Anglican way," he said.

The American Anglican Council, which represents U.S. conservatives, contends the liberals are the ones who have departed from the communion by accepting non-celibate gays.

The council's leaders are in London and will petition the primates to "guide the realignment of Anglicanism in North America." They have not said what form that would take, but some council supporters have said they want Williams to expel the Episcopal Church and recognize conservatives as the true Anglicans in North America.

The Episcopalians acknowledge that some of its bishops allow blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions. Separately, the Diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, British Columbia, also voted to permit the ceremonies in its parishes.

Conservatives worldwide have condemned these moves as unbiblical and threatened to split the communion if Williams doesn't discipline the North Americans — though he has little power to do so. At an emotional meeting last week in Dallas, 2,700 U.S. conservatives began moving closer to a total break with the Episcopal Church.

The conservative Church of Nigeria, home to 17.5 million Anglicans and the communion's second-largest province, has severed ties with the diocese in Vancouver, and parishioners there who oppose homosexual relationships have been fasting and praying.

Williams' options are limited. Unlike the Catholic Church, there is no centralized authority in Anglicanism. Each province is autonomous and Williams cannot settle issues of doctrine. The primates also have no collective legislative authority and cannot vote to punish a member.

But Williams does have the right to decide whether a denomination can affiliate with the communion, and the primates can band together to influence him.

Britain's Guardian newspaper points out that Williams has already confronted this issue at home in England, and sided with the conservatives. Williams earlier this year opposed the selection of the gay but celibate priest Jeffrey John to head a diocese in Reading.

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Southern Africa has suggested forming a high-level commission to study how the communion can live with differences over homosexuality.

Conservatives, however, say such a commission would be the equivalent of doing nothing.

The head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, has been trying to reach out to conservatives leading up to the summit. He has insisted his vote to approve Robinson "wasn't settling questions of sexuality. I was affirming the choice of a diocese."