Anglicans gather to confront historic rift
Leaders meet Wednesday to address church direction on gay issues.
Anglicans, one of the world's largest Christian families, often say the genius of their denomination is that it embraces people of diverse views and finds its unity at the communion rail. [Editor's note: The original version of this story overstated the size of the Anglican Communion.]Skip to next paragraph
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That prized unity now faces the most momentous test in its history, as leaders of the Anglican Communion's 38 national and regional churches gather in London Wednesday for a two-day emergency meeting called by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.
The meeting, prompted by the threat that the church will be split over the question of homosexuality, is an unusually high-profile test of an issue that is simmering in many Christian denominations. Others, including the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches, are also torn over the issue, but their rifts have not played out on such a global and formal scale. At stake is whether splits will solidify, or be healed, within the US Episcopal Church and between it and Anglican churches worldwide.
A large part of the Anglican family is up in arms over the US Episcopal Church's approval this summer of a gay bishop, and its acceptance of same-sex unions performed by local pastors. Anglican traditionalists say the US church has betrayed biblical teaching and must be disciplined and repent.
But as a family of autonomous churches, the global body has no legal structure for disciplining a member, and the archbishop's authority rests on persuasion. Dr. Williams hopes through consultation to find a way to "preserve our respect for one another and for the bonds that unite us."
Liberalizing trends in the Western churches, however, have long distressed both Anglican leaders in the developing world and conservatives in the US and England, and a recent alliance between them has raised the stakes and the pressure.
Several archbishops in Africa - where more than half of the 75 million Anglicans live - speak vehemently of "satanic" ways that have already "shattered" the Communion. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the most populous Anglican province, is seen as the most likely leader of any global breakaway group.
In the US last week, some 2,700 conservative Episcopalians, including about 20 bishops, met in Dallas to disassociate themselves from the national body and consider formation of an "orthodox" US church. They pledged redirection of funds from church bodies, and appealed for intervention by Anglican leaders "to guide the realignment of Anglicanism in North America."
"We are seeking real censure of the Episcopal Church, sanctions that will have a bite to them and call the church to repentance - or else," says the Rev. Canon David Anderson, head of the American Anglican Council, which is spearheading the effort.
The implications could be broad, affecting not only the global body and local churches but also other denominations divided by the same issues. Ecumenical and interfaith efforts, in which the Communion has invested considerable energy, are also jeopardized. The pope warned last week of complications for the Anglican-Catholic dialogue. Muslim leaders called off a recent meeting, and only reinstated the dialogue after written assurance from Williams that the Communion's position on homosexuality had not changed.
African Anglicans worry that if the US decisions are not reversed, the stigma would intensify Christian-Muslim tensions and endanger evangelization on the continent. At the same time, the US church contributes millions of dollars to African churches and agencies.