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Just talk? Or is it time to walk?

International | ANGLICAN CRISIS: Traditionalist Episcopalians, fresh from an angry exchange with liberal leaders, are watching what happens next week, when an openly gay bishop is slated to take power in the United States; "there is a huge crisis looming," admits the archbishop of Canterbury

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

Episcopal theologian Paul Zahl, dean of the 3,000-member Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala., arrived late for an inter-Anglican commission meeting on doctrinal issues in Alexandria, Va., in early September.

Better late than never? Not for some Anglican establishment liberals, who would have preferred "never."

Rev. Zahl was the only American participant in the talks. They dealt in part with the controversy over actions by the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), one of 38 "provinces" in the 75-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion. Weeks earlier, ECUSA's general convention had sparked an international uproar by approving priest Gene Robinson, a homosexual living openly with a male partner, as bishop of New Hampshire; his consecration was set for Nov. 2. The majority of ECUSA's bishops, clergy, and lay delegates also had recognized same-sex unions as within the bounds of church belief.

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An outcry that threatened to tear the communion apart prompted Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to call an emergency "crisis meeting" of the communion's 38 primates, or church heads, for Oct. 15-16 at Lambeth Palace in London.

A secretary handed Rev. Zahl a sheaf of papers, and he settled in for the morning presentation. Thumbing through them, he noticed two unusual documents. The first contained what he called a "carefully scripted" agenda for the upcoming primates' meeting. It was designed to allow for much discussion but no action.

The second document was an unsigned strategy memo to Archbishop Williams. It posed as one of the possible "outcomes" of the primates' meeting "some kind of parallel jurisdiction" in North America, a disciplinary action that must be blocked "at all costs." It exhorted the archbishop not to be "swayed by the American traditionalists [who] love to 'make a fuss.'" Taken together, Rev. Zahl concluded, the papers amounted to a plan to manipulate the primates and prevent any action from being taken.

Ten minutes later, the secretary came to him again. She said there had been a mistake and he shouldn't have received some of the documents. She swiftly swapped the stack of papers with another, minus the two sensitive documents.

Rev. Zahl told friends what he had seen, and reporters soon were calling him. As word spread last month, conservative leaders in ECUSA expressed dismay and denounced any attempts to manipulate the primates' meeting.

After all, thousands of biblically orthodox ECUSA members were counting on the primates to reprimand 2.3-million-member ECUSA. Feeling betrayed and abandoned by ECUSA leadership, some 2,700 conservative clergy and lay leaders, including about 20 ECUSA bishops, had gathered in Dallas on Oct. 7-9 to explore their options. Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, leader of the evangelical-oriented American Anglican Council, summed up the situation:

"The Episcopal Church in the United States is in a deplorable state theologically; we cannot reform ourselves; and we need intervention from the wider Anglican Communion."

At the end, most participants signed a statement titled "A Place to Stand, A Call to Action." It reaffirmed Scripture's standards for sexuality and called on the denomination to "repent and to reverse [its] unbiblical actions." It called for redirection of giving away from ECUSA national headquarters and dioceses that supported the controversial actions.

It also called on the primates to intervene and create "a new alignment for Anglicanism in North America," to encourage biblically faithful bishops to cross diocesan boundaries and extend pastoral care to like-minded parishes, and to "support isolated and beleaguered parishes and individuals in their life and witness as faithful Anglicans."

"Free at last, free at last!" some priests shouted in joyful anticipation.

ECUSA Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, the primate of the American church who had voted to approve the ECUSA actions, issued a statement lamenting what he called the "inflammatory rhetoric" and "ultimatums" coming from Dallas.

The Zahl disclosures, a corridor conversation topic at the Dallas meeting, embarrassed officials at the liberal-led Anglican Communion Office in London. The office serves as headquarters for the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the formal advisory body to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Its leaders have been accused of manipulating past meetings of primates.

The officials on Oct. 7 confirmed that Rev. Zahl had mistakenly been handed "early draft versions" of proposals for the primates' agenda. But Rev. Zahl's comments were "misleading" and quotations in some reports were "incorrect," a spokesman said. The spokesman declined to elaborate on how Rev. Zahl's comments were misleading or comment on whether the London meeting was still scripted.

The primates met privately as scheduled at Lambeth on Oct. 16-17 but without the usual commanding presence of ACC general secretary John Peterson. Only one primate was unable to attend, a conservative bishop from the Philippines.

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