After nearly a year and a half of dealing with the fallout over the ordination of the faith's first openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church's top leaders will gather in Salt Lake City next week to discuss how to respond to the outrage of millions of fellow Anglicans worldwide.
The Episcopal House of Bishops — comprised of scores of U.S. church leaders — will convene here Wednesday and Thursday, and the top items on their agenda include two proposed moratoriums: one on the future ordination of gay bishops living in a same-sex relationship, and another on formal blessing rites for same-sex couples.
The bishops will also consider whether to issue — and if so, how to word — a formal apology for the uproar their decision in August 2003 has caused within the 77-million member worldwide Anglican Communion.
The Episcopal Church is one small division within Anglicanism, representing some 2.3 million members. Largely conservative in membership, the majority of Anglicans view the action by American bishops as an act of hubris that defies biblical teaching against homosexuality.
Eighteen months ago, the group voted to allow ordination of V. Gene Robinson as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, despite the fact that he is openly gay and living in a longtime relationship with his partner. Bishop Robinson was formally installed in his new post last year. He is viewed as a high-profile advocate for gay rights.
After several states voted on measures to ban same-sex marriage in November, he told students at Colby College in Maine, "I think it's arrogance and hegemony and a simplistic and moralistic view of the world," according to a story in the Bangor Daily News. "There's a lot in Scripture about arrogance. It seemed to be the thing that made Jesus the angriest of all."
The bishops' discussions will be based on recommendations issued by the Anglican Communion's top leadership last fall, dubbed the "Windsor Report," calling for the moratoriums and an apology from the U.S. bishops. While discussions have been under way within the church since the report was issued, the meeting here will be the first to formally address the report's recommendations.
While Bishop Robinson said he was initially stunned by the recommendations of the Windsor Report, he told the New York Times in October that he is hopeful about the U.S. bishops' response to it, saying the wording "leaves (some) 'wiggle room' to continue blessing same-sex couples." He also said the report asks bishops to express regret for the turmoil caused by their decision, but not for the decision itself.
Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish, leader of Utah's Episcopal Diocese, has been vocal in her support for both Robinson's ordination and the church's blessing of same-sex unions. In fact, she commissioned the creation of formal blessing rites for same-sex couples within the diocese last year.
Though she declined additional comment on the issues before the meetings begin next week, the Rev. Dan Webster, director of communications for the diocese, said he believes the meeting is "another defining moment in the history of the Anglican expression of Christianity."
Writing in the current issue of the local diocesan newspaper, Diocesan Dialogue, the Rev. Webster said any decisions made by the House of Bishops "will likely change the Anglican Communion as we know it," but he predicted the group won't come to any definitive decision on their response to the Windsor Report's recommendations until at least 2006.
The Rev. Webster said the meetings will be closed to both the media and the public, noting the sensitive nature of the topics at hand.
While most of those who voted to ordain Bishop Robinson are likely to attend, a few conservative bishops who opposed the ordination have boycotted the most recent meetings of the group.
But at least two of those — Bishop Robert Duncan of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Bishop Jack L. Iker of the Diocese of Fort Worth — are coming to Salt Lake City next week, their communication directors told the Deseret Morning News.
Suzanne Gill, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Fort Worth, said Bishop Iker and a handful of U.S. bishops left the group after the vote to ordain Bishop Robinson was taken, and appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury — head of the Anglican Communion — for a response to what they view as an illegal departure from church law.
"Now that their response has been received in the Windsor Report, they're returning this time to the bishops' meeting in the hope that they'll take up the questions of the directives given" in the document, she said.
When asked whether Bishop Iker is hopeful the Windsor Report's directives will be followed, she said she doesn't know what he thinks will happen in Salt Lake City. "I know he's prayed about it and is going to be God's servant. He has good will about wanting to take on those questions addressed to the church."
Bishop Duncan will also attend the meeting, according to Pittsburgh Diocesan spokesman Peter Frank, who said he anticipated the bishop would likely make a statement from the conservative Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes. That group, led by Bishop Duncan, was formed in late 2003 by conservative U.S. bishops and their followers at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in direct response to Bishop Robinson's ordination.
It consists of nine U.S. dioceses, including Albany, Central Florida, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy, Rio Grande, San Joaquin, Springfield and South Carolina. Bishop Duncan leads the group, which has gained formal recognition within many Anglican provinces worldwide.
The group describes itself as "a united, biblically-driven missionary movement dedicated to bringing the 'true and legitimate' expression of Anglicanism to North America, making disciples of Jesus Christ. . . . For many Episcopalians, the ACN has come to represent the hope for a return to the historic faith and order of Anglicanism."
Rev. Webster of the Diocese of Utah said in addition to the proposed moratoriums and apology, the Windsor Report calls for adoption of a formal "Anglican Communion Covenant," which would likely detail rules for membership within the Anglican Communion and outline disciplinary or expulsion procedures for those who violate the covenant.
He believes that topic may consume most of the bishops' time, and such a covenant would ultimately mean U.S. churches and bishops "must stop consecrating openly gay priests . . . and cease any further blessing of same-sex covenant unions. The choice for Episcopalians may come down to honoring the commitment to gay and lesbians that they are full members of the church and be excluded" from Anglicanism, "or exclude gay and lesbian persons from full participation in the church to remain in global federation of Anglican churches," he wrote.
"The pendulum of Anglicanism has swung throughout its 460-year history. . . . That pendulum has produced its share of martyrs for this or that expression of what Anglicanism really, truly is."