Anglican Effort to Avert Schism ; Cautious Optimism Greets Church Report That Offers Road to Reconciliation after US Wing Approved a Gay Bishop

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An international commission to head off schism in the global body representing 77 million Anglicans has taken unprecedented steps in what it calls "a pilgrimage towards healing and reconciliation."

The commission, in a report released Monday, strongly rebuked the Episcopal Church, the US arm of Anglicanism, for consecrating a gay bishop, and called for an apology and commitment to refrain from any such future action. It also proposed a new covenant that would have all Anglican churches commit to a shared understanding of basic teachings and the ties that bind them together.

The report also called for apologies from conservative bishops in Africa and elsewhere who have begun forming relationships across geographic boundaries with Episcopalians alienated from the actions of their US church leadership.

But it warned that "if realistic and visionary ways cannot be agreed ... to reach consensus on structures for encouraging greater understanding and communion ... it is doubtful if the Anglican Communion can continue in its present form."

Presbyterians and Methodists are also divided over issues of homosexuality and biblical authority, but neither has officially departed from traditional teaching as have Episcopalians.

Unlike the hierarchical Roman Catholic church, Anglicanism has 38 self-governing provinces that are part of what is called the Anglican Communion because of their historical relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury. His only authority, however, is that of persuasion.

As a result, a lengthy process lies ahead, as Anglican bishops, clergy, and lay people meet in regional and global groups to discuss the report and how to respond. It's unlikely the covenant would be formalized before the 2008 Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of all bishops. Some say it offers a typically Anglican way - persuasive not juridical - to permit churches to stay in or opt out.

But what will be crucial is what happens between now and then.

The archbishop formed the commission a year ago after outrage spread in the Communion when the American church consecrated the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire and permitted dioceses to bless same-sex unions. A diocese of the Anglican Church of Canada authorized a same-sex rite.

Conservative bishops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America said they felt "betrayed" as the steps went against resolutions passed overwhelmingly by the bishops at their 1998 Lambeth Conference, which declared gay practice "incompatible with Scripture." Some 17 of the 38 church provinces in the global Anglican Communion have declared their relationships with the US church "impaired."

Conservatives within the Episcopal Church have formed a Network of Anglican Dioceses and Parishes as a refuge for those who no longer accept the leadership of bishops that supported the actions. Ten of the church's 110 diocese have joined the network, and members say others have been waiting for the report before acting. …

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