LONDON – The leader of the global Anglican Communion (search) faced enormous pressure Wednesday to repudiate recent moves in North America toward acceptance of gay relationships as world Anglican leaders gathered to search for reconciliation.
Thirty-seven Anglican leaders — called primates — opened the two-day meeting with smiles and prayers at Lambeth Palace (search), the historic London building where the Anglican Communion was formed and where it is now threatened with fracturing over the issue of homosexuality.
One of the primates, the Most Rev. Robin Eames of Ireland, told reporters after the first hours of talks that the group felt "an underlying anxiety all across the board to maintain the Anglican Communion."
Eames said each primate was given time to describe reaction among their people to the decision by the U.S. Episcopal Church to confirm its first openly gay bishop.
He said the primates were working to reach a consensus, but wouldn't comment on what it would be.
"One way or another, it's a new day for Anglicanism." commented the Rev. Canon David Roseberry of Plano, Texas, a leader of conservative Anglicans in the United States who are threatening to split from their church because of the election of its first openly gay bishop. He was not involved in the primates' discussions.
The communion's spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (search), called the unprecedented meeting in August after the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglicans, sparked the crisis by ratifying the election of its first openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson (search) of New Hampshire.
Williams' spokesman, the Rev. Jonathan Jennings, told reporters that the mood was "relaxed" as the leaders met Wednesday morning in the palace chapel. One primate, Bishop Ignacio C. Soliba of the Philippines, did not attend, because of a previous commitment.
"One way or another, it's a new day for Anglicanism," said the Rev. Canon David Roseberry of Plano, Texas, a leader of conservative Anglicans in the United States who are threatening to split from their church.
The closed meeting began with prayers and Bible study, then each primate was given up to five minutes to make a statement, said Canon James Rosenthal, communications director of the Anglican Communion. He did not comment on the content of the statements. An announcement of the meeting's outcome was not expected until late Thursday, but Anglican leaders from both sides of the debate have been meeting in London all week to lobby for support.
At a worship service Wednesday morning organized by pro-gay British Anglicans, the Most Rev. Walter Makhulu, the former archbishop of Central Africa, compared the exclusion of gays to the racist apartheid system.
"The notion of an exclusive church is utterly abhorrent to me," Makhulu said. "It denies the very character and nature of God."
The American Anglican Council (search), which represents U.S. conservatives, contends the liberals have departed from the communion by accepting non-celibate gays.
The council's leaders are in London and will petition the primates to "guide the realignment of Anglicanism in North America." They have not said what form that would take, but some council supporters have said they want Williams to expel the Episcopal Church and recognize conservatives as the true Anglicans in North America.
The Episcopalians acknowledge that some of its bishops allow blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions. Separately, the Diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, British Columbia, also voted to permit the ceremonies in its parishes.
Conservatives worldwide have condemned these moves as unbiblical and threatened to split the communion if Williams doesn't discipline the North Americans — though he has little power to do so. At an emotional meeting last week in Dallas, 2,700 U.S. conservatives began moving closer to a total break with the Episcopal Church.
Williams' options are limited. Unlike the Catholic Church, there is no centralized authority in Anglicanism. Each province is autonomous and Williams cannot settle issues of doctrine. The primates also have no collective legislative authority and cannot vote to punish a member.