It wasn't just a
friendly invitation. U.S. Episcopal bishops, fed up with
Anglican criticism of their support for gay priests,
implored the Anglican spiritual leader to hear their
side of the story--in person.
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
''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.''
in the States facing a 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 the first openly gay bishop,
V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Anglican conservatives, concentrated mainly in developing
countries, have been pressing the Americans to promise not
to consecrate another gay bishop. The 2.2
million-member Episcopal Church is the Anglican body
in the United States.
Unlike the pope,
Williams has no direct authority to force a compromise.
Instead, he listens, prays, and seeks to persuade. ''It's
eroding and exhausting,'' Williams recently told the
National Catholic Reporter, an independent
The upcoming U.S.
visit has only heightened the pressure on Williams.
In a statement
last month, Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola, an
outspoken conservative critic of the U.S. church, condemned
Williams' ''failure of resolve'' to get Episcopal
leaders in line. A week before 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 last two
months in Kenya and Uganda, Anglican leaders
consecrated three former Episcopal priests as bishops to
minister to conservatives in the United States.
Akinola has started his own conservative parish
network, based in Virginia, to rival the Episcopal
Williams, 57, was
enthroned as archbishop of Canterbury in 2003 with a
record of some support for gay priests. But as leader of the
entire communion, he has operated with the
understanding that most Anglicans believe the Bible
bars gay relationships
believe biblical teachings of tolerance and acceptance are
paramount, have been bitterly disappointed. They were
outraged last May when Williams said he would not
invite Robinson to the Lambeth Conference, a
once-a-decade meeting of the world's Anglican bishops.
Susan Russell, president of Integrity, the Episcopal gay
advocacy group, said the decision showed ''a disgraceful
lack of leadership.'' Williams ''has allowed himself
to be blackmailed by forces promoting bigotry and
exclusion in the Anglican Communion,'' she said.
A separate snub
of Williams came from the theological right. Conservative
Anglican archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney, Australia, and
his assistant bishops said they have delayed
responding to their Lambeth invitations from the
archbishop of Canterbury because they don't want to be at
the table with the U.S. bishops who consecrated
leaders in Africa followed Sydney's lead, and raised an
additional complaint--that Williams didn't invite a
breakaway U.S. conservative bishop, the Right Reverend
Martyn Minns. Minns leads Akinola's U.S. mission,
which violates communion tradition that leaders
operate within their own provincial territories.
At the New
Orleans meeting the Episcopal House of Bishops will weigh
demands from Anglican leaders that the U.S. church pledge
not to consecrate another openly gay bishop or
authorize official prayers for same-sex couples. If
Episcopal leaders fail to agree by September 30, they
risk losing their full membership in the communion.
No one expects
Episcopal leaders to completely agree to those terms.
In March the
Episcopal bishops rejected a key demand that they give up
some authority to theological conservatives outside the U.S.
church so that conservative U.S. parishes would not
have to answer to the church's national leader,
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Schori
supports Robinson and blessing ceremonies for same-sex
At the time,
Williams called the bishops' decision ''discouraging.''
spend Thursday and Friday behind closed doors with the U.S.
bishops, then will leave while they debate their next move.
The Episcopal bishops are expected to announce their
decision before the meeting ends on September 25.
''My aim is to
try and keep people around the table for as long as
possible on this,'' Williams 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.''
(Robert Barr, AP)