In an overwhelming vote, the bishops of the US Episcopal Church have taken steps to head off schism in the worldwide Anglican community and to shore up unity within the American church. On Tuesday, at the close of a six-day meeting in New Orleans, they promised to "exercise restraint" by not consecrating more gay bishops or authorizing rites for the blessing of same-sex unions.
The question remains how traditionalists in the US and the developing world, particularly in Africa, will respond to the action and whether it will quash further defections among Episcopalians. A group of breakaway conservatives, which has strong ties to African Anglicans, is meeting in Pittsburgh the rest of this week.
The commitment appeared to have won support across the spectrum of bishops from liberal to conservative. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said they had found "common ground to stand on."
Their statement was in response to a request from global leaders for "unequivocal assurances" regarding restraint in approving gay bishops. They reconfirmed that, but the language fell short of banning such action. The bishops' statement also included their request that "incursions into our jurisdictions" by archbishops from other countries stop. Africans have consecrated a number of bishops in the US as leaders in their provinces.
At the same time, the American bishops called for "unequivocal support and active commitment to the civil rights, safety, and dignity of gay and lesbian persons." And they backed a plan presented by Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori to provide alternative oversight by conservative bishops to parishes that are unhappy with the current church leadership.
Some US traditionalists have rejected her oversight proposals in the past, and are likely to continue to do so. Bishops in the breakaway group left the meeting after the first two days during which the Archbishop of Canterbury and a global committee had joined in the discussions.
"Some will say it's a fudge, it's waffling, because nothing the bishops would have said would have pleased them," suggests the Rev. Ian Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., who was present at the sessions. "But I think we are in a new place. The bishops worked toward a consensus from the beginning, and the sense of unity was quite inspiring."
Conservatives who want to stay in the church have reacted positively. "Clearly, they did their best to respond to those of us who felt we needed to hit the pause button," says the Rev. Russell Levenson, pastor of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, the largest Episcopal church in the US.
Yet he's taking a wait-and-see attitude. "I'm cautiously pleased. It remains to be seen whether, once they go home, they will 'live into' this decision," he adds.
The sticking point for conservatives has been that, although the church has not authorized a rite of blessing, some local leaders have for some time conducted them "in a pastoral response" to gay parishioners. Those actions are expected to continue.
The bishops' statement notes that "the majority of bishops do not make allowance" for such blessings. The Anglican Communion has committed globally to a "listening process" with regard to the experience of gay and lesbian Anglicans.
The church now awaits the reaction of the global church leaders who requested the assurances. Several Africans had threatened not to attend the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference in July 2008 unless the Episcopal Church responded fully.