- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007

LONDON (AP) — It wasn’t just a friendly invitation.

U.S. Episcopal bishops, fed up with Anglican criticism of their support for homosexual 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.”

Archbishop Williams arrives in the United States facing the 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 its first openly homosexual bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Ever since, Anglican conservatives, concentrated mainly in developing countries, have pressed the Americans to promise not to consecrate another homosexual bishop. The 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the United States.

Unlike the pope, Archbishop Williams has no direct authority to force a compromise. Instead, he listens, prays and seeks to persuade. “It’s eroding and exhausting,” the archbishop recently told the National Catholic Reporter, an independent U.S. weekly.

The upcoming U.S. visit has only heightened the pressure on Archbishop Williams.

In a statement last month, Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, an outspoken conservative critic of the U.S. church, condemned Archbishop Williams’ “failure of resolve” to get Episcopal leaders in line. A week before Archbishop Williams was due to arrive in the U.S., 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 past two months in Kenya and Uganda, Anglican leaders consecrated three former Episcopal priests as bishops, to minister to conservatives in the U.S. Archbishop Akinola started his own conservative parish network, based in Virginia, to rival the Episcopal Church.

Archbishop Williams will spend Thursday and Friday behind closed doors with the U.S. bishops, then leave while they debate their next move. The Episcopal bishops are expected to announce their decision before the meeting ends Sept. 25.

“My aim is to try and keep people around the table for as long as possible on this,” the archbishop 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.”

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