The archbishop of Canterbury strongly suggested yesterday that apologies from the US Episcopal Church for creating a controversy by ordaining an openly gay priest as a bishop had not gone far enough to heal a breach in the worldwide Anglican Communion. He called on the American church to repent.
At the same time, the spiritual head of international Anglicanism also appeared to direct some criticism at conservative bishops in Africa and South America who violated church laws by claiming jurisdiction over US parishes that disagreed with their church's liberal stands on homosexuality. The Episcopal Church is the American wing of Anglicanism.
In calling for repentance on both sides, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams appeared to go beyond a report released last month by a panel he appointed to examine how the worldwide 77 million-member Anglican Communion could maintain unity in the face of the Episcopal Church's elevation last year of a gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire.
The panel's findings, known as the Windsor Report, merely invited the US church to express "regret" that its actions had caused consternation in many parts of the Anglican Communion. It also invited the church to undertake a self-imposed moratorium on similar ordinations in the future.
But Williams said yesterday that apologies were not enough, taking up a stand expressed earlier by several irate African bishops, who demanded that the US church repent.
Williams did not spell out whether he hoped the US church would cease ordaining gay men and lesbians as bishops. However, in church theology, repentance is understood to mean more than an apology. It means endeavoring to change direction and not to commit the same offense again.
"An apology may amount only to someone saying, 'I'm sorry you feel like that,' and that doesn't go deep enough," Williams wrote in a letter to the world's Anglican primates to mark the beginning of the Advent season, the period of repentance before Christmas.
"If it is true that an action by one part of the communion genuinely causes offense, causes others to stumble, there is need to ask, 'How has what we have done got in the way of God making himself heard and seen among us?" Williams wrote. "Have we bound on other churches burdens too heavy for them to bear, reproaches for which they may suffer? Have we been eager to dismiss others before we have listened?"
Since the Anglican Communion consists of self-governing national churches, Williams does not have authority to enforce his views. Several national churches have reduced or cut ties to the American church since the ordination of the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson as New Hampshire bishop.
Williams's letter is expected to raise the stakes when US bishops meet next month in Salt Lake City to draft a formal response to the Windsor report.
Church officials said that while Williams did not specifically name the US church, he clearly had in mind Robinson's ordination.
"It's a strong challenge to North American leadership, but it's also a strong challenge to the whole communion," said the Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon, a theologian in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina who frequently speaks on behalf of US conservatives.
The Rev. Canon Ian Douglas, professor of mission and world Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., added, "He's asking all of us to repent of the fact that we believe and function as if we're self-directed, autonomous individuals and churches that aren't in some kind of very profound way related to each other."