NEW ORLEANS — Episcopal leaders agreed yesterday to “exercise restraint” in approving another homosexual bishop and will not approve prayers to bless same-sex couples.
It will not be known for weeks or even months whether the bishops, who were pressured to roll back their support for homosexuals, went far enough to help prevent a schism in the Anglican Communion.
Episcopal leaders said they made the decision “with the hope of mending the tear in the fabric” of the communion.
“We all hope that our sacrificial actions and our united actions at this meeting once again demonstrate to the wider communion that we treasure our membership and we treasure the other members of the Anglican community,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said.
Theological conservatives in the Episcopal Church immediately rejected the document as too weak.
“This is a ‘try to keep your foot in the door’ maneuvering effort,” said Canon Kendall Harmon, a leading conservative from the Diocese of South Carolina. “It feels like they want to change the ground rules instead of pay the price for what they believe.”
Bishops released the statement in the final hour of an intense six-day meeting and at a crucial moment in the decades-long Anglican debate over how the Bible should be interpreted.
The Anglican fellowship has been splintering since 2003, when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly homosexual bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Anglican leaders had set a Sunday deadline for the Americans to pledge unequivocally not to consecrate another homosexual bishop or approve an official prayer service for same-sex couples.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, took the unusual step of attending the meeting for the first two days, pushing bishops to make concessions for the sake of unity. Anglican lay and clergy representatives from overseas also participated, scolding Episcopal leaders for the turmoil they’ve caused. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the United States.
Bishop Robinson said the talks with Archbishop Williams and Anglican leaders were “the two hardest days since my consecration.” But he said he thought the document is fair.
“I think people came here thinking this was going to be Katrina II,” Bishop Robinson said, referring to the devastating hurricane that hit the city in 2005. “And what in fact happened was a coming together of the bishops of the church.”
Archbishop Williams said he will take time to evaluate the document with a committee representing Anglican leaders and the Anglican Consultative Council, an international lay-clergy panel.
Church leaders vowed to continue to fight for the recognition of the civil rights of homosexuals.
“I have no doubt that the General Convention [in 2009] will revisit these issues,” Bishop Jefferts Schori said.
Critics of the statement also said the national Episcopal Church leaders didn’t do enough in their statement to provide alternative leadership for conservative dioceses.
In the document, Episcopal leaders made some demands of their own, including that overseas Anglican leaders stop coming into the United States to assume oversight of breakaway conservative Episcopal parishes. Anglican leaders from Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere have consecrated bishops to oversee congregations in the United States.
In May, Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola installed Bishop Martyn Minns, rector of Truro Church in Fairfax, as the head of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.
About 60 Episcopal parishes, including 15 in Virginia, have left or voted to leave the national church. A meeting of U.S. traditionalists who either split from the national church or are considering leaving began yesterday in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
The next crucial event for the Anglican Communion will be the Lambeth Conference in July in England. The once-a-decade meeting brings together all the bishops in the Anglican world.
Whether Archbishop Williams can persuade bishops to attend will be a measure not only of his leadership, but also of the strength of the communion.
Archbishop Williams did not invite Bishop Robinson or Bishop Minns. But some Anglican prelates don’t even want to be at the same table as Episcopalians who consecrated Bishop Robinson.
Separately, Bishop Robinson has been in private talks with the archbishop of Canterbury to find a way he can attend, as an observer perhaps, and bishops in New Orleans this week voted to support that effort.