The top leaders in the worldwide Anglican Communion are to meet this month in Ireland, where conservative leaders within the church hope strong disciplinary action will be taken against the Canadian and U.S. churches for their support of homosexuality.
Congregations in North America have been steadily leaving the 70 million-member communion since 2003, when the diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, B.C., sanctioned the blessing of same-sex unions and the head of the Episcopal Church USA consecrated V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire.
Observers say the trend toward a liberal theology has been ongoing for years. In October, the Episcopal Church's Web site offered articles on paganism written by two priests who allegedly are also Druids, the Institute on Religion and Democracy reported. The group said one article called for Episcopal women to participate in a ritual for the "queen of heaven."
In the churches in the West, there "has been over time a stepping back from the central tenets of faith that the church has held to for 2,000 years," said Jay Greener, spokesman for the Anglican Mission in America, a network for churches that want to leave the Episcopal Church. "This is really not about homosexuality; this is really about the central doctrines of Christianity," he added, noting that since 2000, the group has helped 72 churches align themselves with the diocese in Rwanda.
Canadian Bishop Donald Harvey said churches in his nation are not leaving at the same pace as U.S. parishes, but he acknowledged that many conservative ministers there are being treated harshly by their bishops. "They're getting a terrible backlash by the diocese in New Westminster," said Harvey, moderator of the newly formed Anglican Network in Canada, a fellowship for conservative churches in Canada. "There have been threats to remove licenses, threats to close churches, threats to sell their property, all of these things."
Conservative ministers such as those in Harvey's group, who chose to stay within the Anglican Communion, hoped the Windsor Report, released in October in response to the pro-gay moves by U.S. and Canadian dioceses, would offer them an alternative to submitting to leaders who they believe are deviating from Scripture. But most observers say the report fell flat, extending only an invitation for the offending churches to "express regret," but not to repent and make changes.
Both the bishops of New Westminster and the Episcopal Church refused to stop blessing same-sex unions or ordaining gay clergy, as the report encouraged.
John Guernsey, dean of the mid-Atlantic conference of the Anglican Communion Network, a fellowship of conservative churches that have stayed in the Episcopal Church, said he hopes the primates, as the top leaders are known, will draw a clear line in the sand during their meeting Feb. 20-26.
"If strong and decisive action were to take place, it might open the door for biblically faithful Episcopalians to be acknowledged and given some structural way to remain," Guernsey said. "While we earnestly hope and pray for that we also realize the actions of the primates may fall far short of that, even to the point of the communion coming apart."
Last summer, three prominent Episcopal congregations in Los Angeles left the U.S. church to join the Anglican diocese in Uganda, and two in the Washington, D.C., area connected with the diocese in Recife, Brazil. Other congregations are gaining oversight from the bishop of Nigeria.
Observers say the trend is part of a global shift in leadership. They cite Penn State University religion professor Philip Jenkins' 2002 book, The Next Christendom, which predicted that the center of gravity within the church would shift from the West to the "global south": Africa, Latin America and Asia, where churches are growing at a much more rapid pace.
As they await the primates' meeting this month, Anglicans in the United States and Canada are unsure whether church unity can be salvaged. "I don't see the liberal revisionists backing off on their agenda of promoting the gay lifestyle," said the Rev. Canon David C. Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council. "And hundreds of thousands of solid, orthodox Christians in the Episcopal Church cannot stomach that, so they're going to be looking for places to go."
Adrienne S. Gaines
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