DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Anglican world leaders are demanding that its American branch, The Episcopal Church, abort its practices of ordaining gay bishops and offering same-sex blessings by Sept. 30, or risk removal from the broader Anglican Communion.
The document emerged late on Feb. 19, after the conclusion of a five-day biannual meeting in Tanzania with the communion's 38 regional leaders, called primates.
The communiqué also requested the formation of a special vicar who would provide administrative oversight to conservative congregations who do not accept the authority of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. The ordination of women is another issue among Anglican conservatives.
After the release of the communiqué, Schori asked members of her church to be patient, likening it to a "forbear for a season."
"Our own church has in recent years tended to focus on the suffering of one portion of the body, particularly those who feel that justice demands the full recognition and celebration of the gifts of gay and lesbian Christians," she wrote in a statement. "That focus has been seen in some other parts of the global Church as inappropriate, especially as it has been felt to be a dismissal of traditional understandings of sexual morality.
"Both parties hold positions that can be defended by appeal to our Anglican sources of authority— Scripture, tradition, and reason—but each finds it very difficult to understand and embrace the other.
"What is being asked of both parties is a season of fasting—from authorizing rites for blessing same-sex unions and consecrating bishops in such unions on the one hand, and from transgressing traditional diocesan boundaries on the other."
The Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, rector of Grace Episcopal Church near Boston, announced during his March 11 sermon his own fast—that of ceasing all marriage ceremonies in protest of any effort to block same-sex ceremonies. Four other Episcopal priests from his Amherst congregation quickly joined forces with Hirschfeld.
"I can no longer hold together my own integrity as a priest who has made vows to minister faithfully the sacraments of the reconciling love of Christ, if indeed to perform such sacrament means deeper, more wrenching, more agonizing tearing of the Body of Christ to which I am called to support and nourish," the script of Hirschfeld's sermon, posted on the church Web site, said.
While the primates' mandate is a disappointment for gay rights advocates, denominational conservatives were hopeful the stand would finally stem what they view as a growing encroachment of liberal theology.
Meantime, EP News Service reported that the man at the center of the controversy is calling Jefferts Schori's plea for a "pause" unacceptable.
V. Gene Robison, the openly homosexual Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, said the U.S. branch of Anglicanism should not give in to demands from the world body that it reconsider Robinson's 2003 installation. Robinson released a statement which said that "Jesus (challenged) the greater whole to sacrifice itself for those on the margins. Now is the time for courage, not fear." He added: "Does anyone believe that our full compliance with the ... demands, our complete denunciation of our gay and lesbian members, or my removal as bishop would make all of this go away?"
Ralph Webb, the director of Anglican Action for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, commended the church leaders for clearly seeking an end to same-sex marriage blessings and the ordination of gay bishops.
"We commend the primates for their strong reaffirmation of the Anglican Communion's standard of teaching on marriage: that it is a permanent union between one man and one woman, and that Christians are to be abstinent outside of marriage," he said in a Feb. 23 statement
"We commend the primates for their pastoral concern for all Anglicans—including those in the United States who have either left the Episcopal Church for other Anglican jurisdictions or who remain within the denomination, but find themselves at odds with either their bishop or the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop.
As many as 10 percent of Episcopal clergy and churches have bolted from the American denomination in protest over more liberal doctrine. Most of those congregations have remained in the worldwide communion, however, by changing to the Anglican name and affiliating with overseas provinces.
The primate's communiqué came late in the day after the primates released a document called the Anglican Covenant, which granted the worldwide communion authority to remove provinces of full membership, but only in "extreme circumstances."
Webb said he was hopeful America's Episcopal congregations would honor the mandate.
"We urge the Episcopal Church to meet the requests of the primates out of a clear conscience concerned with the healing of the Anglican Communion and adhering to orthodox faith and social witness," he said.