LONDON – Anglican primates agreed Thursday that the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada (search) would withdraw from a key body of the global Anglican Communion after failing to overcome internal church disagreements about the election of a gay bishop in the United States and the blessing of same-sex unions there and in Canada.
The agreement marked the first formal breach in the communion over the explosive issues of sexuality and biblical authority.
A statement from leaders of Anglican national churches who met this week in Northern Ireland also called on the two churches to explain their thinking on gay issues at another Anglican meeting in June.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (search), Frank T. Griswold, said the debate would continue and that his fellow church leaders had made room "for a wide variety of perspectives."
"I am grateful that the Anglican Communion is still able to make room for different points of view so we can avoid schism and fracturing and stay together for the sake of the Gospel," Griswold said.
The U.S. church precipitated the most serious rift in the communion's history when it affirmed the election of V. Gene Robinson, who openly lives with a male partner, as bishop of New Hampshire. Both churches have been criticized by conservatives for sanctioning blessings of gay unions.
The two churches would temporarily step away from the Anglican Consultative Council, a key body for contact among the national churches and one of the four so-called "instruments of unity."
However, the Anglican primates also recommended a special hearing be held at the next council meeting in June to allow the North American churches to explain their actions on homosexuality.
"In the meantime, we ask our fellow primates to use their best influence to persuade their brothers and sisters to exercise a moratorium on public rites of blessing for same-sex unions and on the consecration of any bishop living in a sexual relationship outside Christian marriage," the statement said.
Griswold issued a brief statement stressing that discussions were continuing:
"These days have not been easy for any of us and the communiquÄe reflects a great deal of prayer and the strong desire to find a way forward as a communion in the midst of deep differences which have been brought into sharp relief around the subject of homosexuality."
"Clearly, all parts of the communiquÄe will not please everyone. It is important to keep in mind that it was written with a view to making room for a wide variety of perspectives."
The primates' communique reaffirmed a resolution adopted by all Anglican bishops in 1998 which declared that gay practices were "incompatible with Scripture" and opposed gay ordinations and same-sex blessings.
The communique said many of the 35 primates, or leaders of national churches, who met this week were "deeply alarmed that the standard of Christian teaching on matters of human sexuality" expressed in that 1998 resolution had "been seriously undermined by the recent developments in North America."
The Anglican Consultative Council is the body through which leaders of the national churches meet and consult in between the once-every-10-years Lambeth Conferences. The U.S. and the Canadian churches each send three delegates to the council, which is the only global Anglican body which includes bishops, priests and laity, said James Rosenthal, spokesman for the Anglican Communion.
The Americans and Canadians were asked to voluntarily withdraw, Rosenthal said.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the communion, issued no comment but planned to appear at a news conference on Friday.
Before the Northern Ireland meeting, Williams said the dispute had "weakened, if not destroyed, the sense that we are actually talking the same language within the Anglican Communion."
A commission headed by Irish Archbishop Robin Eames sharply criticized the American church for forging ahead on the gay issue without fully consulting the rest of the global communion, which is rooted in the Church of England.
The communique showed a marked lack of enthusiasm for Eames recommendations for strengthening the role of the archbishop of Canterbury. "We are cautious of any development which would seem to imply the creation of an international jurisdiction which could override our proper provincial autonomy," the communique said.
And whereas Eames' report criticized African and other bishops who have offered to serve as bishops for disaffected Episcopal congregations in the United States, the communique called on Williams to take steps to "to protect the integrity and legitimate needs of groups in serious theological dispute with their diocesan bishop, or dioceses in dispute with their provinces [national churches]."