An international commission to head off schism in the global body representing 77 million Anglicans has taken unprecedented steps in what it calls "a pilgrimage towards healing and reconciliation."
The commission, in a report released Monday, strongly rebuked the Episcopal Church, the US arm of Anglicanism, for consecrating a gay bishop, and called for an apology and commitment to refrain from any such future action. It also proposed a new covenant that would have all Anglican churches commit to a shared understanding of basic teachings and the ties that bind them together.
The report also called for apologies from conservative bishops in Africa and elsewhere who have begun forming relationships across geographic boundaries with Episcopalians alienated from the actions of their US church leadership.
But it warned that "if realistic and visionary ways cannot be agreed ... to reach consensus on structures for encouraging greater understanding and communion ... it is doubtful if the Anglican Communion can continue in its present form."
Presbyterians and Methodists are also divided over issues of homosexuality and biblical authority, but neither has officially departed from traditional teaching as have Episcopalians.
Unlike the hierarchical Roman Catholic church, Anglicanism has 38 self-governing provinces that are part of what is called the Anglican Communion because of their historical relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury. His only authority, however, is that of persuasion.
As a result, a lengthy process lies ahead, as Anglican bishops, clergy, and lay people meet in regional and global groups to discuss the report and how to respond. It's unlikely the covenant would be formalized before the 2008 Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of all bishops. Some say it offers a typically Anglican way - persuasive not juridical - to permit churches to stay in or opt out.
But what will be crucial is what happens between now and then.
The archbishop formed the commission a year ago after outrage spread in the Communion when the American church consecrated the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire and permitted dioceses to bless same-sex unions. A diocese of the Anglican Church of Canada authorized a same-sex rite.
Conservative bishops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America said they felt "betrayed" as the steps went against resolutions passed overwhelmingly by the bishops at their 1998 Lambeth Conference, which declared gay practice "incompatible with Scripture." Some 17 of the 38 church provinces in the global Anglican Communion have declared their relationships with the US church "impaired."
Conservatives within the Episcopal Church have formed a Network of Anglican Dioceses and Parishes as a refuge for those who no longer accept the leadership of bishops that supported the actions. Ten of the church's 110 diocese have joined the network, and members say others have been waiting for the report before acting.
The Archbishop of Canterbury's plea to both sides to refrain from provocative steps has not been effective. Bishops in several US dioceses have blessed same-sex unions, and three parishes in southern California recently split off from the diocese of Los Angeles and sought the oversight of an African bishop. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria this month came to the US to talk of setting up a special arrangement for Nigerians (and perhaps others) alienated from US bishops.
Episcopalians on both sides of the issue express cautious optimism about the report. "It issues a very strong challenge and gives the North American leadership difficult choices, putting the ball in their court," says Dr. Kendall Harmon, canon of the Diocese of South Carolina and a conservative leader.
"It's like talking to a husband in an adulterous relationship, saying, 'You are in a marriage. You have a choice - continue in the relationship or in the marriage. Over to you," he says.
The Rev. Ian Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., who advises the US church on Anglican Communion relations, says "It calls us to wrestle deeply with what it means to be a family of churches seeking to live together amid profound differences."
Part of the challenge has come from the rapid growth of Anglicanism in the developing world, particularly Africa, as churches in the West have been shrinking. While the US church has slightly more than 2 million members, Nigeria has more than 17 million Anglicans. Many Africans see the US church as foisting steps upon them which are neither Christian nor acceptable in their culture.
The majority in the Episcopal Church, on the other hand, sees its actions as responding in a Christian manner to the deep needs of parishioners.
"It is important to note that ... we are seeking to live the Gospel in a society where homosexuality is openly discussed and increasingly acknowledged in all areas of our public life," said the Most Rev. Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. The report has "in mind the containment of differences in the service of reconciliation," he added, but "unless we go beyond containment and move to some deeper place of ... making room for the differences that will doubtless continue to be present in our communion, we will do disservice to our mission."
The report is clearly a blow to the Episcopal leadership. It says there are limits to diversity, defined by truth and charity. And it urges the US church not to participate in international meetings until it has expressed its regret for actions that failed to take into consideration the views of others in the Communion.
US bishops committed themselves prior to the report's release to receive it in "a spirit of humility and ... a willingness to learn how we might best be faithful and responsible partners in the Anglican Communion."