DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – Anglican leaders demanded Monday that the U.S. Episcopal Church unequivocally bar official prayers for gay couples and the consecration of more gay bishops to undo the damage that North Americans have caused the Anglican family.
In a statement ending a tense six-day meeting, the leaders said that past pledges by Episcopalians for a moratorium on gay unions and consecrations have been so ambiguous that they have failed to fully mend "broken relationships" in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion.
The Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of world Anglicanism, must clarify its position by Sept. 30 or its relations with other Anglicans will remain "damaged at best."
"This has consequences for the full participation of the church in the life of the communion," the leaders said.
The meeting in Tanzania was the latest of several attempts to keep Anglicans unified despite deep rifts over how they should interpret the Bible. The long-simmering debate erupted in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Anglican traditionalists believe gay relationships violate Scripture and they have demanded that the U.S. church adhere to that teaching or face discipline.
Supporters of ordaining gays believe biblical teachings on justice and inclusion should take precedence. They have accused theological conservatives of demanding a conformity among Anglicans that never before existed. The communion was founded in the 16th century by King Henry VIII and spread worldwide by the British Empire.
Discussions at the closed-door gathering this past week were so highly charged that drafting the final statement for the 38 Anglican provinces took hours longer than expected.
In 2005, Anglican leaders had asked the Episcopal Church to temporarily stop electing gay bishops and developing official prayer services for same-sex couples.
The top Episcopal policy making body, called General Convention, responded by asking church leaders to "exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration" of candidates for bishop "whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church." The request is not binding.
On official prayer services, the convention rejected proposals for a churchwide liturgy for gay partners. However, a small number of U.S. dioceses have moved toward developing local prayers and some dioceses have allowed priests to conduct the ceremonies privately.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the communion, does not have direct authority to force a compromise. He said the requests contained in the document released Monday "will certainly fall very short of resolving all the disputes, but will provide a way of moving forward with dignity."
Canon Kendall Harmon of the Diocese of South Carolina, a leader among Episcopal traditionalists, said the document "is not everything I would have wanted," but he was encouraged that Anglican leaders "made specific calls with specific deadlines."
However, the advocacy group Integrity, which represents Episcopal gays and lesbians, accused the leaders of bigotry, and urged Episcopalians to lobby their bishops to reject the demands.
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who supports gay relationships, said in a brief statement after she left the meeting that talks among Anglicans must continue.
The final statement from Anglican leaders expressed worry over feuding within the Episcopal Church and the wider communion. Some U.S. parishes have left the Episcopal Church to affiliate with Anglicans in Africa. Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola has set up a network for conservative U.S. parishes as a rival to the Episcopal Church. Lawsuits have been filed over Virginia-area churches that joined with Akinola and want to take their property with them.
Anglican leaders called on all sides in the conflict to end their lawsuits and recommended the creation of a pastoral council and a special vicar to oversee the minority of conservative U.S. dioceses and parishes that feel they cannot accept Jefferts Schori's leadership. Among the goals of the plan is to create an alternative so U.S. parishes stop affiliating with overseas Anglicans — a violation of communion tradition.
Anglican leaders also released a draft set of common principles meant to allow Anglican provinces to remain independent, but recognize their actions have an impact on each other.
The proposed Anglican Covenant, which will likely be revised before it is finalized years from now, states that a church could lose full membership in "extreme circumstances" but could take steps to regain its full member status.