The world's Anglican leaders piled pressure Thursday on churches in New Hampshire and their openly gay bishop-elect, warning that if he takes office it could shatter a global communion deeply torn over homosexuality.
"If his consecration proceeds, we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion (search)," the leaders of 37 national churches said after two days of emergency, closed-door talks. "We have had to conclude that the future of the communion itself will be put in jeopardy."
The Anglican primates issued a statement that also told church leaders to start thinking about new structures of "episcopal oversight" so that bishops on one side of the debate over gays would not have to supervise congregations that rejected their views.
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold (search), head of the U.S. Episcopal Church (search), joined in the statement. American conservatives, who are close to revolt over their church's growing acceptance of gay relationships, took that as a hopeful sign.
Griswold said he intended to be in New Hampshire on Nov. 2 for the consecration of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson (search) as bishop — but he said "anything could happen" before then.
Asked if he would urge Robinson to withdraw, Griswold said: "I might do many things."
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (search), who is personally sympathetic to gays but has pledged to uphold the church's teaching that homosexual acts are contrary to Scripture, said the primates had issued "an honest statement of where we are, a statement of our willingness to work together, and our recognition of the obstacles to our working together."
Archbishop Drexel Gomez, primate of the Province of the West Indies and a sharp critic of Robinson's election, said the primates had "studied, reflected, prayed and worked together, and we have done so in almost brutal honesty."
Both sides in the bitter debate found reasons to cheer the statement, and primates left the meeting with their fragile association still intact.
Supporters of gay clergy took heart that the primates agreed to appoint a commission to begin "urgent and deep theological and legal reflection" on ways out of the impasse, and to report within a year.
"This leaves Rowan Williams free to encourage debate, which is what I hoped for above everything," said the Rev. Colin Slee, dean of London's Southwark Cathedral.
The Rev. Kendall Harmon, a conservative from the Episcopal diocese of South Carolina, said he believed Griswold might yet ask the New Hampshire diocese to put off the consecration.
The statement also criticized Canada's diocese of New Westminster, in British Columbia, for deciding to permit blessings of gay couples.
"We are still in communion but there are dark, dark clouds on the horizon, particularly around the consecration of the bishop of New Hampshire," said Canada's primate, Archbishop Michael Peers.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has no authority to discipline any of the national churches, which have previously divided over the ordination of women as priests and bishops. However, he could withdraw recognition that a church is part of Anglicanism.
Williams called the summit immediately after the General Convention of the Episcopal Church confirmed Robinson's election this summer, which came over vehement conservative objections.
Robinson has said repeatedly that he will not withdraw, and a statement Thursday from diocesan officials in New Hampshire held that line. "We look forward to the consecration of Bishop-elect Robinson on Nov. 2, believing that God has called him to this ministry," they said.
If he is consecrated, the primates said, "the ministry of this one bishop will not be recognized by most of the Anglican world, and many provinces are likely to consider themselves to be out of Communion with the Episcopal Church (USA). This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level."
American conservatives, organized under the banner of the American Anglican Council, had hoped that the leaders would expel the Episcopal Church and recognize them as the true Anglican body in the United States.
But the primates didn't go that far. They urged national churches to "take time to share in this process of reflection and to consider their own constitutional requirements as individual provinces face up to potential realignments."
The conservative Church of Nigeria, home to 17.5 million Anglicans and the communion's second-largest province, has already severed ties with the Canadian diocese in protest of gay blessings.
Evangelicals fear that pro-gay decisions anywhere within the communion will undermine their evangelism, especially in areas where they are competing with Muslims.
"Minority churches which exist in places like Pakistan and elsewhere depend quite a lot for their status and their public voice on being associated with a ... worldwide body," Williams said.
"When parts of that worldwide body make decision which may be thought to commit or involve those small local churches, they can be placed in appallingly difficult positions."
A reporter asked Williams how he would respond to accusations that he "sold out" Jeffrey John, a gay Church of England priest who withdrew from appointment as a bishop earlier this year, and was doing the same to Robinson.
"I would say that my primary duty is to the church whose orders I hold, and whose unity I have to serve as best I can." Williams said.
"We can't deny the realities of the reactions that I have described to you, which are the reactions of the greater part of the Anglican world."