Wednesday, October 15, 2003

LONDON — The global leaders of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion battled behind closed doors at an emergency summit yesterday over the issue of ordaining homosexual bishops and priests — the most serious crisis to face the church in five centuries.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the church’s chief, summoned its 38 primates into two days of talks to try to stave off the threat of schism in the Anglican Church triggered by U.S. Anglicans’ appointment of an openly homosexual cleric as bishop of New Hampshire.

The debate centered on a demand by the church’s furious conservative evangelicals, led by its African, Asian and Caribbean primates, that the 2.3 million-strong U.S. Episcopal Church retract its ratification of Canon V. Gene Robinson, a divorced father of two, to the New Hampshire bishopric.

“It is no exaggeration to say this is ‘crunch time,’” said one source at Church House, the Church of England’s headquarters in London. “This meeting could see the end of worldwide Anglicanism.”

A key part of the debate that pitted evangelicals against liberals centered on a proposal that the U.S. Anglicans back off from the Robinson appointment within a specific time. Otherwise, the London Times reported, the American branch would risk suspension from the Communion.

Sources close to the church said the 37 primates attending the summit at the 12th-century Lambeth Palace in London were split over the Robinson appointment, with 20 primates opposed to it and 17 accepting it. The 38th, Archbishop of the Philippines Ignacio Capuyan Soliba, begged off because he had “a previous commitment.”

In the early hours of the marathon session yesterday, a spokesman for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rev. Jonathan Jennings, emerged to say that “it is so far, so good,” and he insisted that his boss was “quite relaxed.”

Others were less sanguine. “At least they are still talking to each other,” one source said. Another, British religion analyst Laurence Spicer, said the 37 primates “are praying for a very unlikely miracle.”

Archbishop for Ireland Robin Eames stepped away from the meeting to tell journalists that he would “hazard a guess” that the crisis meeting was moving toward a consensus. What that consensus might be, he said, would have to wait until today’s closing — and likely more turbulent — session.

Archbishop Eames said the opening day’s debate was one of “openness, frankness and honesty,” but he acknowledged “underlying anxiety right across the board, to maintain the Anglican Community.”

“One way or another, it’s a new day for Anglicanism,” said Canon David Roseberry of Plano, Texas, a leader of conservative U.S. Anglicans who are threatening to split from their church.

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