LONDON -- The unity of the worldwide Anglican Communion hangs in the balance as international church leaders gather for a closed-door summit to talk and pray about homosexuality, the issue threatening to fracture the 77-million member association.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the communion, called the unprecedented meeting in August, after Episcopalians in the United States ratified the election of their first openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The denomination, which is the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, also acknowledged that some of its bishops allow blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions. Separately, the Diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, British Columbia, voted to permit the ceremonies in its parishes.
Conservatives worldwide have condemned these moves as unbiblical and threatened to split the communion if Williams doesn't discipline the North Americans -- though he has little power to do so. At an emotional meeting last week in Dallas, 2,700 U.S. conservatives began moving closer to a total break with the Episcopal Church.
They have the support of many of the 38 Anglican leaders -- called primates -- with the strongest backing from provinces in the developing world, which now comprise the majority of Anglicans worldwide. Those bishops fear that pro-gay decisions anywhere within the communion will undermine their evangelism, especially in regions where Muslim extremists are gaining ground.
"It allows people in Islam to say, 'Look, here's what Christians do,"' said Canon Bill Atwood, general secretary of the Ekklesia Society, a Texas-based conservative mission to overseas Anglicans. "It makes moral mockery possible."
The meeting is being closely watched by Protestant denominations who share the communion's deep divisions over homosexuality.
The outcome could also affect Anglican relations with other religions. Pope John Paul II told Williams this month that Robinson's election has caused "serious difficulties" in efforts to unify the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
Williams, who has the led the communion for only nine months, is under enormous pressure to prevent a breakup. "I pray for a solution which will hold us together," he told Vatican radio.
He has expressed personal sympathy for gay clergy and, as archbishop of Wales, ordained a man he knew was in a gay partnership. But since being enthroned as archbishop of Canterbury, he has upheld a 1988 resolution approved by Anglican bishops that said gay sex violates Scripture.
Williams intervened last summer after evangelicals complained to him about the Rev. Jeffrey John, an openly gay clergyman who had been appointed bishop of Reading in the Church of England. John then declined the post, saying he did not want to hurt the church.
"It looks as if (Williams) weighed out two priorities," said Diarmaid MacCulloch, Oxford professor of the history of the church, "support for gays and church unity. On balance, he's going for unity of the church."
The archbishop's options are limited. Unlike the Catholic Church, there is no centralized authority in Anglicanism. Each province is autonomous and Williams cannot settle issues of doctrine. The primates also have no collective legislative authority and cannot vote to punish a member.
But Williams does have the right to decide whether a denomination can affiliate with the communion, and the primates can band together to influence him.
"Whoever he invites to the family gatherings is Anglican," said the Rev. Ian Douglas, professor of world Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "If he doesn't recognize them as in relationship with the See of Canterbury, that body won't be Anglican."
The American Anglican Council, which represents U.S. conservatives, will petition the primates in London to "guide the realignment of Anglicanism in North America." They have not said what form that would take, but some council supporters have said they want Williams to expel the Episcopal Church and recognize conservatives as the true Anglicans in North America.
It would be an extreme move that conservatives and liberals agree is unlikely to occur at this meeting. Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Southern Africa has suggested an alternative: forming a high-level commission to study how the communion can live with differences over homosexuality.
Conservatives, however, say that would be the equivalent of doing nothing.
"If that happens, then we're all out of here," said the Rev. Peter Moore, a leading U.S. conservative and head of the evangelical Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Pennsylvania.
The head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, has been trying to reach out to conservatives leading up to the summit. He has insisted his vote to approve Robinson "wasn't settling questions of sexuality. I was affirming the choice of a diocese."
Robinson, scheduled to be consecrated next month in New Hampshire, declined to comment. But he has said he will not step down as John did in England. At the Episcopal convention where he was confirmed, Robinson said he would not be responsible if the communion divided over his election.
"I'm carrying a lot on my shoulders," he said. "I'm not going to carry that."
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