LONDON — Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, showing signs of exasperation, has warned fellow leaders of the Anglican Church that a dispute over homosexual clergy threatens to shatter their 77-million-member communion.
The leaders — senior archbishops and presiding bishops from six continents — were summoned to a weeklong conference in a country mansion in Northern Ireland, but at the midway point, there was little sign of any agreement on the horizon.
“Should the call to halt and find ways of continuing in our present communion not be heeded, then we shall have to begin to learn to walk apart,” Archbishop Williams said.
“There will be no cost-free outcome from this. To put it as bluntly as I can, there are no clean breaks in the Body of Christ,” the archbishop said Tuesday night.
The crisis was triggered when the American branch, the Episcopal Church, in 2003 ordained the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson as Anglicanism’s first openly homosexual bishop.
Bishop Robinson lives with his male partner in the Diocese of New Hampshire.
The conference near Newry, Northern Ireland, was called to study the Windsor Report, a church document compiled by a commission of senior clergy.
The report called on the U.S. church to express regret for upsetting the Anglican Communion and to declare a moratorium on the appointment of homosexual bishops and on blessing homosexual unions.
The American church did say it was sorry for any upset, but it left it at that.
Bishop Frank T. Griswold, who presides over the Episcopal Church in the United States, indicated the U.S. Episcopalians are unlikely to go much, if any, further.
Bishop Griswold has been described as the “liberal bete noire” of traditionalists in his own church, as well as of conservative archbishops, who were furious that he presided personally at the Robinson consecration.
At 2.4 million members, the U.S. Episcopal Church is relatively small, but it is quite wealthy and subsidizes numerous churches in the developing world — especially in Africa, where Anglicans are adamantly opposed to homosexuality.
About half the primates at Newry are thought to want the U.S. church, as well as a Canadian church that has authorized same-sex-blessing services, to repent or face stiff sanctions.
With the battle lines so clearly drawn, the archbishop of Canterbury himself appeared somewhat dispirited as he sought peace among the church’s primates midway through this week’s meeting.
“We are required first of all to know that it is Christ who has made peace. In other words, we are not to be anxious, a doomed piece of advice it may be for any church — not least of all the Anglican Communion at the moment,” he said.
Anglicanism’s mother church, the Church of England, is known to be sympathetic toward homosexuals, but says it is determined to maintain impartiality.
The Anglican Church’s conservative opposition to homosexuality is led by its provinces in Africa and Asia, which make up more than half of Anglicans worldwide.
They cite the Bible’s Book of Leviticus, which says, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination.”