Mainline Churches Struggle over Gay Policy ; A Meeting of the Anglican Communion This Week Confronts a US- African Divide, and an Unhealed Rift within the US

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Gathered this week in Northern Ireland, senior bishops of the Anglican Communion are seeking to maintain unity in the global body amid the most difficult circumstances in the denomination's history.

They are meeting for the first time since the release of a major report which called for the Episcopal Church, the US branch of Anglicanism, to repent for consecrating a gay bishop and allowing same-sex ceremonies, and to agree to a moratorium on such actions. Anglican leaders in developing nations have threatened schism if appropriate action is not taken.

The deep split in one of the world's largest Protestant groups (77 million) represents only the most urgent of the debates over Christian teaching on homosexuality. US Lutherans and Presbyterians are also struggling over the demands of traditional teaching and a compassionate response to gays and lesbians in their congregations.

After lengthy study, a commission of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) last month released proposals that stirred criticism from both sides. The report recommends staying with traditional teaching - not ordaining gays - yet suggests that the ELCA refrain from enforcing the policy should individual churches accept a gay or lesbian pastor.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), a three-year "commission on peace, unity, and purity" plans to take up the ordination issue next month and report to the church in 2006.

Unity, and its cost

US mainline churches have been riven by the debate for years. For most Christian churches, unity is part of the fundamental witness of Christian life, and the prospect of any further splintering within the body of Christ is anathema. Yet the cost of unity is the issue troubling many.

From the perspective of Anglican leaders in the developing world, "Anglicanism is in danger of being no longer Protestant because ... they don't see how the American case works on the basis of Scripture," says Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the South Carolina diocese.

On the Lutheran task force, "some people thought unity was the primary consideration," says Bishop Margaret Payne of ELCA's New England synod. "Others thought, from the two sides, that justice should be more important or that holding fast to tradition should be more important." But, she adds, "it's a very Lutheran practice to have unity without uniformity, to place things in the hands of pastors and ask them to use discretion in their pastoral setting."

This is the direction the US Episcopal Church has gone, to the consternation of some of its members as well as most Anglican leaders in developing nations.

"The central points of theological belief have been eviscerated - it's tragic," says Dr. Harmon, a leader among those opposing church actions. "The Episcopal Church is one of radical incoherence."

Conservatives in the US church have formed an Anglican Network of Dioceses and Parishes that seeks a return to traditional teaching, and looks to the Communion to insist on it. The network acts as a refuge for parishes that feel they cannot accept the leadership of bishops who are willing to perform same-sex ceremonies or who voted to approve V. Gene Robinson, a practicing gay, as bishop of New Hampshire. So far only 10 of 110 dioceses have joined the network, though some parishes within dioceses have made the move. …