Archbishop of Canterbury in U.S. to prevent Anglican, Episcopal split over gay bishop
LONDON -- It wasn't just a friendly invitation.
U.S. Episcopal bishops, fed up with Anglican criticism of their support for gay priests, implored the Anglican spiritual leader to hear their side of the story -- in person.
Starting Thursday, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams will be in New Orleans for that private talk, hoping he can hold together the increasingly fractured world Anglican family.
"If anybody can do it, then somebody of the intellectual stature of Rowan Williams could," said Mark D. Chapman, lecturer in systematic theology at Ripon College Cuddesdon in Oxford, England. "But it is a very tall order."
Williams arrives in the United States facing a real danger that the global Anglican Communion could break up on his watch.
The communion, a 77-million-member fellowship of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England, has always held together members with conflicting biblical views. But debate erupted into confrontation in 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Ever since, Anglican conservatives, concentrated mainly in developing countries, have been pressing the Americans to promise not to consecrate another gay bishop. The 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the United States.
Unlike the pope, Williams has no direct authority to force a compromise. Instead, he listens, prays and seeks to persuade. "It's eroding and exhausting," Williams recently told the National Catholic Reporter, an independent U.S. weekly.
The upcoming U.S. visit has only heightened the pressure on Williams.
In a statement last month, Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, an outspoken conservative critic of the U.S. church, condemned Williams' "failure of resolve" to get Episcopal leaders in line. A week before Williams was due to arrive in the United States, two conservative-led Episcopal dioceses -- Pittsburgh and Quincy, Ill. -- said they were taking the first steps toward breaking with the American church and aligning with an overseas, like-minded Anglican province.
Over the last two months in Kenya and Uganda, Anglican leaders consecrated three former Episcopal priests as bishops, to minister to conservatives in the United States Akinola has started his own conservative parish network, based in Virginia, to rival the Episcopal Church.
Williams, 57, was enthroned as archbishop of Canterbury in 2003 with a record of some support for gay priests. But as leader of the entire communion, he has operated with the understanding that most Anglicans believe the Bible bars gay relationships.
Liberals, who believe biblical teachings of tolerance and acceptance are paramount, have been bitterly disappointed. They were outraged last May when Williams said he would not invite Robinson to the Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade meeting of the world's Anglican bishops.
The Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, the Episcopal gay advocacy group, said the decision showed "a disgraceful lack of leadership." Williams "has allowed himself to be blackmailed by forces promoting bigotry and exclusion in the Anglican Communion," she said.
A separate snub of Williams came from the theological right. Conservative Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney, Australia, and his assistant bishops, said they have delayed responding to their Lambeth invitations from the archbishop of Canterbury, because they don't want to be at the table with the U.S. bishops who consecrated Robinson.
Some Anglican leaders in Africa followed Sydney's lead, and raised an additional complaint -- that Williams didn't invite a breakaway U.S. conservative bishop, the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns. Minns leads Akinola's U.S. mission, which violates communion tradition that leaders operate within their own provincial territories.
At the New Orleans meeting, the Episcopal House of Bishops will weigh demands from Anglican leaders that the U.S. church pledge not to consecrate another openly gay bishop or authorize official prayers for same-sex couples. If Episcopal leaders fail to agree by Sept. 30, they risk losing their full membership in the communion.
No one expects Episcopal leaders to completely agree to those terms.
In March, the Episcopal bishops rejected a key demand that they give up some authority to theological conservatives outside the U.S. church so that conservative U.S. parishes would not have to answer to the church's national leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Schori supports Robinson and blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
At the time, Williams called the bishops' decision "discouraging."
Williams will spend Thursday and Friday behind closed doors with the U.S. bishops, then will leave while they debate their next move. The Episcopal bishops are expected to announce their decision before the meeting ends on Sept. 25.
"My aim is to try and keep people around the table for as long as possible on this," Williams said in April, when he announced he would meet with the Americans. "If there is to be any change on the church's attitude on gay and lesbian behavior then I would hope it would be a change of attitude on the part of the church as a whole."