Twenty-four conservative Episcopal bishops in the United States cut ties Friday with a Canadian diocese that recently authorized a blessing ceremony for a homosexual couple.
The move has implications for a looming showdown in the Episcopal Church (search), which will vote in two weeks whether to approve same-sex blessings and ratify the election of the church's first openly gay bishop — the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Many in the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion (search), of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. member, fear the votes at the Episcopal General Convention (search) could split the church. In 1998, the Anglican Communion approved a resolution calling gay sex "incompatible with Scripture."
The 24 bishops said in an open letter to conservative Anglican bishops they "utterly repudiate" the same-sex blessing ceremony held May 28 in the Diocese of New Westminster, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
They also warned that approving similar ceremonies in the United States and confirming Robinson's election "would be unparalleled departures" from church teaching.
The bishops said they were aligning themselves with Anglican leaders from Africa and Asia who have been the most outspoken in condemning homosexuality — in some cases threatening to break with dioceses that elect gay bishops.
"We desire to act in concert with you and are ready to take counsel from you," the U.S. bishops wrote to their colleagues overseas. "We stand ready, in concert with you, to commit to common responses to the deteriorating situation within the Episcopal Church."
The Rev. Michael Hopkins, president of Integrity, an Episcopal gay advocacy group, viewed the statement as a warning that the bishops will break with the U.S. church if same-sex blessings and Robinson's election win approval at the national meeting.
"They're basically trying to affect the convention by threat," Hopkins said.
But spokesmen for several of the bishops said no threat was intended, and they accused gay-rights supporters of trying to fracture the 2.3-million-member U.S. church.
Florida Bishop Stephen Jecko, among the signatories, said the statement "seeks to affirm the historic faith and polity upon which our unity must be built."
The Rev. Kendall Harmon, a spokesman for South Carolina Bishop Edward Salmon, said the goal of the statement was to express concern "that the Episcopal Church is about to leave the Anglican Communion."
James Solheim, a national spokesman for the Episcopal Church, said Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was traveling and could not immediately be reached for comment. Griswold has not said publicly how he will vote at the convention, which runs from July 30 to Aug. 8 in Minneapolis.
"His main concern now is to hold the Episcopal Church together and be sensitive to what other members of the Anglican Communion are doing and saying," Solheim said.