HOMOSEXUALITY Anglican hierarchy awaits panel's report
The Episcopal Church's consecration of a gay bishop has caused deep divisions.
By RICHARD N. OSTLING
AP RELIGION WRITER
Rarely have the bishops and bureaucrats who lead the world's 77 million Anglicans awaited a moment with such intense anticipation.
On Monday, a 17-member emergency panel called the Lambeth Commission will issue recommendations on how the Anglican Communion can remain a coherent, united segment of global Christianity despite severe disagreements over homosexuality and interpretation of the Bible.
At stake may be the long-term future of the Communion, the international association of churches with roots in the Church of England.
And the findings will resonate even further -- to Christians in all denominations who believe their faith has unfairly oppressed gays and lesbians, and equally for those who consider changes a direct attack upon the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian teaching.
Two of London's leading newspapers reported last month that the commission would call for disciplinary measures against the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism's U.S. branch, for consecrating Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who lives openly with a gay partner.
Other issues with gays
Robinson's elevation isn't the only explosive matter. Openly gay priests are increasingly common in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada. Last year's U.S. church convention recognized that Episcopalians "within the bounds of our common life" conduct same-sex blessing ceremonies and this year's Canadian synod affirmed the "sanctity" of gay couples.
Those events have divided North American parishes and dioceses, and created acrimony among the Anglican Communion's 38 self-governing national churches.
The global consensus is clearly conservative. A 1998 conference of all Anglican bishops declared gay practices "incompatible with Scripture" and opposed gay ordinations and same-sex blessings in a 526-70 vote with 45 abstentions.
There's talk that Monday's report will run 80 pages. If it follows Anglican custom there will be language to assuage both sides that allows various interpretations. The implications will play out through 2006, when the next U.S. Episcopal convention is held, 2007 (Canada's synod) and 2008 (Anglican bishops' world conference).
Pronouncements ahead of the report have offered competing concepts of the Anglican heritage.
According to 45 liberal U.S. clergy and lay activists, "the Anglican tradition of living in tension and diversity of thought" should be maintained.
The group also said the commission shouldn't recommend penalties against the Episcopal Church because it was mandated only to discern how to hold Anglicans together "in spite of our expressed differences."
One signer, the Rev. Dan Webster, communications director for the Utah Diocese, said "the extreme religious right" in America has teamed up with foreign bishops in an attempt to turn an international association of churches into "a monolithic structure."
Conservative leaders, meanwhile, have championed traditional teaching.
Nigeria's Archbishop Peter Akinola said the Americans have broken up the Anglican Communion by creating a "new religion." And Uganda's Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi said the Episcopal Church has separated itself from "the vast majority" of Christendom through "heretical and immoral actions."
Nigeria and Uganda are Anglicanism's two largest branches outside England. Conservatives maintain that those two churches and others that have formally protested Episcopal Church actions include a clear majority -- perhaps as much as three-fourths -- of the world's active Anglicans. Only last week Australia's Anglican Church voted against gay clergy and same-sex blessings.
What might the commission propose?
Given the broad international ire, the Rev. Ian Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts thinks a mere wrist slap against the Americans is unlikely.
But he also doubts the Episcopal Church will be simply "thrown out" of the Anglican Communion or that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams -- the faith's spiritual leader -- and other leaders would supplant the Episcopal Church and recognize only the conservatives in the American Anglican Council and Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes.
He expects "some kind of severe criticism and rebuke" but no proposed departure from Anglicanism's custom of national autonomy.
The Rev. Paul Zahl, new president of Pennsylvania's Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, fears that the trickle of fellow conservatives quitting the Episcopal Church will become a stream unless there's strong international action.
And without help from leaders such as Akinola, "down the road there will be no room in this church for those who believe as Anglicans have always believed," says editor David Kalvelage of The Living Church, an independent Episcopal weekly that opposed Robinson as a bishop.
The commission sent its report to Williams after its final meeting last month.
Meetings of committees
The document is being released during meetings of standing committees that manage affairs of the "primates," the 38 heads of Anglican branches, and the Anglican Consultative Council, an advisory body of bishops, priests and lay delegates. Participants include Akinola and the man he sharply criticized for leading Robinson's consecration, U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.
All primates will meet to debate next steps in February. Also, the Episcopal Church's bishops will hold a special session in January to mull the report.