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Episcopal bishops, archbishop seek a middle ground

Queries, comment offered on issue of gay clerics

The Archbishop of Canterbury during a visit to All Souls Church in New Orleans yesterday. The Archbishop of Canterbury during a visit to All Souls Church in New Orleans yesterday.

NEW ORLEANS - Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in a last-ditch effort to avoid a schism in the global Anglican Communion, spent seven hours yesterday holed up in a posh New Orleans hotel with most of the nation's Episcopal bishops, many of whom tried to persuade him that it is a mistake to define the American church solely by its decision four years ago to approve an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire.

The unusual conversation took place just days before a Sept. 30 deadline, set by leaders of Anglican provinces around the world, for the American church to back away from its support for gay rights or face some unspecified form of punishment. US bishops spent yesterday morning telling the archbishop how they see the church in the United States, and the archbishop spent the afternoon asking them questions.

The meetings, which resume today, were closed to reporters, but participants described them as cordial but pointed. Williams was scheduled to meet with the bishops again this morning and then to depart for Armenia; next week, the bishops were expected to decide whether they are willing to explicitly promise not to approve any more gay bishops or a blessing rite for same-sex couples, the actions requested by the foreign Anglican leaders.

Despite deep disagreements among the bishops over theology and increasing dissatisfaction among some Episcopalians with the Anglican Communion, none of the 159 bishops in attendance spoke in favor of walking away from the communion, which is a 77-million member global coalition of regional churches that trace their roots to the Reformation and the Church of England.

"The conversation today . . . reflected a passionate commitment to the vitality of the life of, and ministry of, both the Episcopal Church and to the Anglican Communion," Bishop Robert O'Neill of Colorado, who began his career as a priest in Winchester, Mass., said at a press briefing.

Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts said that he told Williams that gay rights issues should not depend on approval from the majority of the Anglican Communion, but urged Williams to recognize that gay rights supporters, such as Shaw, believe they are acting in a prophetic way.

"There are certain times in history when you simply have to act - the majority isn't going to do it," Shaw said in an interview. "Speaking truth isn't just liberal thinking, but it's something that has a deep place in biblical literature, in the life of Jesus and the prophets."

Shaw said he also told Williams that it is difficult to seek consensus in the American church "when these American bishops are going to Africa and making promises and playing on the fears of the African church."

Shaw was referring to the fact that Anglican leaders in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda have consecrated American priests, including the Rev. William Murdoch of Massachusetts, as bishops to minister to the alienated conservative minority in the United States who no longer feel comfortable in the Episcopal Church.

The Anglican Communion has been facing the possibility of schism since 2003, when the Episcopal Church approved as the bishop of New Hampshire the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who is openly gay and lives with his longtime partner. The approval, which conservatives said violated the Bible's teachings on homosexuality, exacerbated long-developing tensions over the liberal direction of the Episcopal Church.

The bishops in attendance are so divided that they are not all staying in the same hotel. The official meeting hotel is the InterContinental, but Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, the leader of the wing of the church most upset by the Robinson consecration, is staying down the block at the Parc St. Charles with a handful of other conservatives.

Even though the House of Bishops meeting is scheduled to run through Tuesday, some conservative bishops are planning to walk out today, as soon as the archbishop of Canterbury is gone. The conservatives, including people who have left the Episcopal Church as well as those who have remained, are planning their own meeting in Pittsburgh next week to figure out how they might organize themselves outside of the Episcopal Church.

Hoping to head off one proposal - a two-tiered Anglican Communion in which the Episcopal Church would have some kind of lesser status if it could not agree to the majority view on homosexuality - a group of six bishops has circulated a 98-page document arguing against the idea of an agreed-upon covenant to which all Anglican provinces would have to agree or be ostracized; they argue such an agreement would violate the Anglican Communion's constitution.

"The covenant is a bad idea," said Joe Morris Doss, the former bishop of New Jersey. "We should all understand: We became Anglicans for a reason, and we should now discuss long-range solutions."

In remarks at the opening worship service, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori decried the increasingly hostile tone of the debate.

"We have lived in this church and in this communion for a number of years with abundant disdain, violent words, and destructive action toward those who hold positions at variance with our own," she said. "None of us is wholly free of blame in this game, for we have all sought to judge those who oppose us."

Schori began the meeting by offering an olive branch of sorts to conservatives, naming eight US bishops who could visit dioceses that do not approve of Schori herself, either because she is a woman or because she supported the election of Robinson. Of the 110 Episcopal dioceses in the United States, six have asked for someone other than Schori to oversee them. The bishops of all of six dioceses opposed Robinson's consecration, and in three the bishops do not ordain women.

Conservatives rejected the Schori overture, which a spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese, Peter Frank, called "less than what was offered before and less than what the Communion asked for.

"It's not going to go anywhere, and the presiding bishop knows that," he said.

The only woman named by Schori as a possible alternative visitor, Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island, said in an interview that she does not expect anyone to ask her to visit because of her gender. Wolf, who supported Robinson's consecration, said that in the interest of keeping the communion together, she believes that the bishops should issue a clear statement agreeing to the primates' request that they approve no more noncelibate gay bishops and that they not authorize a national rite for blessing same-sex couples.

After meeting with the bishops, Williams yesterday visited an Episcopal mission, All Souls Church, in the Katrina-devastated Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Last night, Williams preached to several thousand people at an ecumenical service in New Orleans's Morial Convention Center, where Hurricane Katrina evacuees huddled two years ago.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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