At their 16-21 March 2007 meeting in Texas, the bishops of The Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in the USA and some other regions) have rejected a parallel leadership structure which would be headed up from outside their country.
They have also declined a deadline that they should univocally pledge not to consecrate partnered gay bishops, and stop authorizing blessings of same-sex couples – saying that the demands go against core Gospel and Reformation principles.
The ultimatums towards the Episcopal Church came in a communiqué from the February meeting of the Anglican Primates (worldwide leaders) in Tanzania.
However the church, which is itself divide on the sexuality issue, but with a very clear majority believing the Gospel requires an affirmative stance towards lesbian and gay people, stresses that it very much wishes to remain part of the Communion – though it realises that conservatives may seek further punitive action against it.
The Episcopal Church leadership is also seeking an urgent meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams – who has frequently met with those who wish to see it disciplined, but not with them. They have offered to pay his air fare.
The bishops, meeting privately at a retreat centre outside Houston, Texas, said they had a “deep longing” to remain part of the Anglican Communion, but were unwilling to compromise the Episcopal Church’s autonomy and its commitment to full equality for all people.
“If that means that others reject us and communion with us, as some have already done, we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision,” the bishops said in a statement released earlier this week. The recommendations will be taken up next by the church’s executive council, which is generally expected to agree to them.
The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in the UK, Dignity in the US, and many others who support the principle of inclusion within the churches have welcomed what one described to Ekklesia as “a brave and principled stand.”
The bishop’s letter details a whole series of ways in which they have sought to maintain communion, comply with the Windsor Report, engage theologically with the concerns of those who disagree, respect the diversity of Anglican opinion, acknowledge the majority view, and show respect towards others in the church.
They point out that the integrity and good faith of their actions has been recognised by the architect of the Windsor process, former Archbishop Robin Eames, but say that on each occasion a section of the Primates has chosen to impose its own harsher demands.
The Episcopal Church bishops say that what is being required of them raises important theological and ecclesiological (doctrine of the church) issues: “It is a very serious departure from our English Reformation heritage ... It replaces the local governance of the church by its own people with the decisions of a distant and unaccountable group of prelates.”
They add “It is spiritually unsound. The pastoral scheme encourages one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them ... we cannot accept what would be injurious to this church and could well lead to permanent division.”
It goes on: “It is incumbent upon us as disciples to do our best to follow Jesus in the increasing experience of the leading of the Holy Spirit. We fully understand that others in the Communion believe the same, but we do not believe that Jesus leads us to break our relationships.
“We proclaim the Gospel of what God has done and is doing in Christ, of the dignity of every human being, and of justice, compassion, and peace. We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free. We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God’s children, including women, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ’s Church. We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God’s children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ’s Church.
“We proclaim the Gospel that stands against any violence, including violence done to women and children as well as those who are persecuted because of their differences, often in the name of God. The Dar es Salaam Communiqué is distressingly silent on this subject. And, contrary to the way the Anglican Communion Network and the American Anglican Council have represented us, we proclaim a Gospel that welcomes diversity of thought and encourages free and open theological debate as a way of seeking God’s truth. If that means that others reject us and communion with us, as some have already done, we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision.”
Some Anglican conservatives have expressed jubilation that, they believe, they can now expel those they disagree with from the Communion. Others, like Bishop Duncan of Pittsburg, have expressed caution.