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Beyond 'regret'

Religion | U.S. Episcopalians battle over worldwide call to repentance

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

It was as if the liberal establishment in the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) woke up and smelled smoke.

It happened at last month's meeting of the ECUSA House of Bishops at a conference center in North Carolina. On everybody's mind was what would be the 2.3-million-member denomination's official response to the demands of the Windsor Report, due in June at the ECUSA triennial convention in Columbus.

Windsor's demands came from leaders of the estimated 77-million-adherent worldwide Anglican Communion, of which ECUSA is the U.S. "province." Predominantly conservatives from the global south, those leaders were protesting ECUSA's departure in 2003 from traditional Bible-based Anglican theology to consecrate a partnered gay bishop and approve same-sex blessings. Windsor called for ECUSA to express regret for violating the interdependence of the Communion, to show by its actions and faithfulness to Anglican doctrine that it wants to remain in the Communion, and to place a moratorium on gay bishops and same-sex blessings until at least 2008, when all the world's Anglican bishops next meet.

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Behind the scenes, ECUSA's liberals were split. The radicals and gay factions wanted the denomination to proceed with its own agenda without compromise. Moderates were in favor of papering over the differences with double-meaning language that could be interpreted as acceptable by all sides.

Embattled conservatives in ECUSA didn't believe ECUSA would ever make a theological U-turn and renounce its positions on gay sex. Many saw their alliance, known as the Anglican Communion Network, as their future, replacing ECUSA as the country's recognized Anglican presence. The Network already claims the allegiance of about one-fifth of ECUSA's congregations.

To muddy matters further, the Diocese of [Northern] California will elect a new bishop in May, to be confirmed at the ECUSA convention in June. Three of the candidates are partnered gays, and two of them appear to have strong support.

At the North Carolina meeting, the bishops took inventory. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the titular head of Anglicanism, had made it clear earlier: The Communion was in crisis over ECUSA's actions, and absent any sincere turnabout, it would break apart. He served notice that the Communion's strong stance on homosexuality, adopted in 1998, will be non-negotiable at the next worldwide conference in 2008.

The archbishop also sent U.K. Bishop of Exeter Michael Langrish to North Carolina to deliver that message to the bishops in person.

Bishop Langrish, who has close ties to the global south Anglicans, said "regret" is not good enough; it must be "repentance" as originally understood before revision. He also took issue with "ambiguous" language in the proposed responses to Windsor drawn up by a special ECUSA commission. Anglican leaders will see through such tactics and respond accordingly, he warned.

The ECUSA commission's proposals were completed at the end of March and were due to be published early this month. Both houses of the ECUSA legislature-the House of Bishops and House of Deputies (clergy and laity)-will vote on them in June. As summarized in briefings to bishops, a series of proposed resolutions would commit ECUSA, among other things, to:

  • loyalty to the Communion and endorsement of the Windsor Report;
  • expressing "repentance" for past actions;
  • exercising "extreme caution" in electing future bishops whose "acceptability poses a challenge";
  • putting authorization of same-sex unions on hold "until a consensus emerges in the Communion," and bishops who performed them should apologize.

Many bishops informally voiced approval. But gays and hard-core liberals denounced the proposals and vowed to see them defeated in the House of Deputies. Expressing "repentance," San Francisco gay rector John Kirkley told a reporter, would say that ordaining partnered gay Gene Robinson in 2003 was not only "a mistake" but "a sin." He added: "I don't think that's what a majority of deputies and bishops believe in their hearts."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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