The worldwide Anglican communion was heading for an unprecedented schism Thursday night as its member churches in the United States and Canada were asked to withdraw from intercommunal gatherings following a rift over homosexuality. In a six-page communiqué, issued late Thursday night following earlier leaks to the Guardian and other newspapers, the primates of the 78 million-strong Anglican Church, attending a meeting in Northern Ireland, agreed to call upon the United States and Canadian churches to withdraw voluntarily for at least three years.
Their representatives will not be invited to church meetings for that period. It was unclear whether the churches will be offered a form of associate or lesser status in the communion in the meantime.
The statement said that "in order to recognize the integrity of all parties," the archbishops requested that the two churches withdraw their members from meetings of the joint Anglican Consultative Council. They will be asked at their next synods to consider their future place within the worldwide communion.
The North Americans precipitated the split because of their progressive stance on homosexuality, still regarded as anathema in many other parts of the communion, particularly in the developing world. In 2003, the U.S. Episcopal Church endorsed the election of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in the diocese of New Hampshire. At the same time, the diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, Canada, became the first in the communion to introduce a service of blessing for same-sex couples.
The church's decision follows intensive discussions among 35 of the 38 primates of the Anglican churches' provinces across the world during a five-day meeting at a country mansion at Dromantine near Newry. It effectively splits the third biggest Christian denomination, which has the Church of England as its mother church. Conservatives and traditionalists had been demanding that the liberal North American churches be punished unless they withdrew or publicly repented their actions over the gay issue.
It appeared clear that although the statement does not go that far, it represents a victory for those demanding that the church stick to its agreed, Bible-based line on homosexuality.
Thursday night the leading critic of the Americans and Canadians, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, was said to be entertaining his supporters and the traditionalist American and English evangelicals, who have been circling the meeting semi-clandestinely all week, at what was described as a "celebratory" party, paid for by the Americans.
One of those in attendance was believed to be U.S. Episcopal Bishop Bob Duncan of Pittsburgh, who has led the opposition and has been staying locally, apparently holidaying in Newry in February.
The statement calls on Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, to set up a panel of reference to supervise the pastoral provision of parishes that have fallen out with their bishops over the issue of homosexuality and says that traditionalist bishops will be discouraged from intervening in diocesan disputes in other jurisdictions. It also says that the church will now take seriously the long-called-for and promised process of listening to gay and lesbian people and hearing their concerns. It adds that any victimization or diminishment of gay people is anathema: "Homosexual people are children of God, loved and valued by him and deserving of the best we can give of pastoral care and friendship."
In the meantime, the statement expects all primates to exercise their best influence to impose a moratorium on same-sex blessings and the consecration of any bishops "living in a sexual relationship outside marriage."
The recommendations are generally in line with those in last October's Windsor report, which was drawn up by a commission of senior church representatives under the chairmanship of Archbishop Robin Eames, the primate of all Ireland.
It has been evident during this week's meeting that neither side was prepared to back down or compromise. The mood of the meeting was described as quiet and somber, with Williams, who chaired it, said to be resigned to the division.
Evidently, while the traditionalists have succeeded in their aim of "punishing" the Canadians and Americans, the meeting tried to meet some of the progressives' concerns and left the door open to future reconciliation. A senior English church source said: "No one has been pushed out yet, and no one has walked out."