After two days of "encouraging" talks with the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops in the USA, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told reporters prior to setting off on his Middle East trip this week that if the Anglican Communion resolves its differences enough to avoid schism "it will have done something for the entire Christian community" - writes Pat McCaughan for the Episcopal News Service.
Dr Williams, who made pastoral visits to hurricane-damaged areas of New Orleans and preached at a 20 September ecumenical service where dioceses donated US$931,000 for disaster relief, said outstanding local recovery efforts helped focus bishops' conversations around "our need for one another."
"The need we have for each other is very deep, it came across yesterday in much of the discussion in our first session," Williams told more than 60 international, national and local reporters at an afternoon news conference.
"Many bishops spoke of their awareness of the need for Christian community elsewhere in the world … [of] the need to understand something not just about the experience of poverty and privation in those areas but also of young churches, finding their way in mission."
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said conversations were both stimulating and provocative. "It has been a privilege for us to meet together in this way and to have the physical presence from other members of the Anglican Communion; that's been very important," she said.
Also addressing the media were bishops Duncan Gray III of Mississippi, Charles Jenkins of Louisiana, and Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam of New York, a member of the Episcopal Church's delegation to the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC).
The bishops will participate in hurricane recovery service projects in Louisiana and Mississippi September 22, worship services at local churches September 23, and will continue deliberations through the conclusion of sessions on 25 September.
The bishops are expected to issue a formal response to Anglican Primates communiqué, issued in Dar es Salaam in February.
Williams discounted earlier reports that the communiqué included an ultimatum. "Despite what has been claimed, there is no ultimatum involved," Williams said in a prepared statement.
"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. 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 is "a place to start," he said. "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."
Rather, the communiqué included issues the Primates felt needed clarification by the Episcopal Church "if the breach is to be healed. I hope these days will result in a constructive and fresh way forward for all of us."
Jefferts Schori said some responses have already been made, adding that she hoped for a full response by the meeting's conclusion September 25.
Bishops Gray of Mississippi and Jenkins of Louisiana said the remainder of the meeting will no doubt be influenced by the backdrop of ongoing recovery efforts.
"We have spoken to one another with candor, clarity and charity and we now move into a common mission to address the needs of New Orleans and Mississippi Gulf Coast," Gray said. He thanked Williams for offering new ways with which to think about the Communion and other dioceses for their support.
"There is no such thing as spare people, there are no throwaway lives," Jenkins added. "That's what we're struggling with as a Communion; more importantly that's what we are demonstrating here in mission. People of good will and faith stand for the dignity of humanity … I want you to know that, even in the midst of our disagreements we stand strongly for all of God's people."
In response to reporters' questions, Williams said he does not personally regard homosexuality as a disease to be healed and that he leaves New Orleans with a much "richer" understanding of how the baptismal covenant determines Episcopal Church polity and has facilitated conclusions regarding human sexuality for the Episcopal Church.
He was emphatic that discrimination against gay and lesbian people cannot be tolerated under any circumstances, but acknowledged that the issue is about the distinction between accepting gay and lesbian people as the Body of Christ and "those who want to raise questions about the eligibility of gay and lesbian people in active roles."
Williams said he prefers local solutions to legal battles between dioceses and breakaway congregations over property and buildings, and is very distressed by bishops who have "wandered into other jurisdictions."
He is not inclined to postpone the once-every-decade Lambeth Conference until differences can be resolved, preferring instead to be faithful to those smaller provinces "who need friends and the experience of drinking from other people's well … we don't want them to be held hostage by the politics of others."
The 2008 Lambeth Conference is "a necessary encounter with the cross on the way to the Resurrection, however difficult it is for everyone," he added.
The 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, Williams said, exists for the glory of God. "[I]f we are able to get it right, if we construct it in some positive, faithful way we will have done something for the whole Christian community."
Jefferts Schori told reporters at the news conference's end that the work of the House of Bishops is just beginning. "Come back and talk to us on Tuesday," she said. "The experience of the local community and relief efforts are an example of why we believe it is important for the Episcopal Church to remain in full communion with the rest of the Anglican Communion."
Pat McCaughan is senior associate pastor for parish life at St. George's Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills, California, USA. She is also correspondent for the Diocese of Los Angeles and Episcopal News Service.