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
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
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. …