LONDON – The threat of an immediate split over homosexuality within the U.S. Episcopal Church (search) appeared to ease Thursday, as liberals and conservatives said world Anglican leaders had addressed the concerns of both groups in a two-day summit on the issue.
Liberals were relieved that the 37 leaders — called primates — did not seek to directly intervene in the U.S. denomination over the confirmation of its first openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson (search) of New Hampshire.
Episcopal gay-rights advocates said they were not upset that primates said Robinson's consecration could jeopardize the unity of the global Anglican Communion (search), since the leaders took no formal action to stop the ceremony Nov. 2.
And conservatives said they were pleased that the primates directed all the churches in the 77-million-member communion to meet the spiritual needs of members who disagree with ordaining gays. Evangelicals had warned they would walk away from the church if the primates did not go far enough in responding to the crisis.
Nonetheless, conservatives warned some kind of breakup could still occur. They said the true test of church unity would come over the next weeks and months, as Episcopalians who oppose Robinson decide whether they can stay in the denomination.
"I'm worried more than anything else about parishioners," said the Rev. Kendall Harmon of the South Carolina diocese, who is a leader of the U.S. conservatives. He will join fellow evangelicals from the United States and England in a London meeting Friday to discuss their next move.
In their statement, Anglican leaders expressed "regret" that the Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. arm of Anglicanism, confirmed Robinson at its national convention in August. They warned that if he is consecrated as planned the communion could split.
The primates set up a commission that will report back in a year on how they can resolve differences over homosexuality and called for special "pastoral care" for people who dissent from church policy.
Harmon said the statement indicated that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (search), the spiritual leader of the communion, took the views of evangelicals seriously. Williams had called the summit to ease tensions over Robinson and a decision by the Diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, British Columbia, to authorize same-sex blessing ceremonies.
"Rowan Williams is someone who is not willing to paper over real differences," Harmon said, calling Williams' efforts to maintain unity in the communion "heroic." Harmon said he would tell parishioners that the outcome of the meeting meant "the primates are serious in trying to help you."
But Jim Naughton, communications director for the Washington, D.C., diocese, who defends the church's decision to confirm Robinson, noted "there was no intervention in the United States, no formal rebuke of any kind."
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold (search) also said he did not consider the statement a reproach.
Griswold said New Hampshire Episcopalians had a right to choose their bishop and said he would attend Robinson's installation — though he did not absolutely rule out asking him to step down before then.
Robinson has said repeatedly that he would not give up leadership of his diocese. Top officials in the diocese of New Hampshire issued a statement saying they "grieve that others in the Anglican Communion have felt deep pain over these issues," but affirmed their support for his election.
"We look forward to the consecration of Bishop-elect Robinson on Nov. 2, believing that God has called him to this ministry," they said.