NEW ORLEANS – Episcopal leaders, pressured to roll back their support for gays to keep the world Anglican family from crumbling, affirmed Tuesday that they will "exercise restraint" in approving another gay bishop and will not authorize prayers to bless same-sex couples.
The statement mostly reiterated earlier pledges by the church, and it will not be known for some time whether the bishops went far enough to help prevent an Anglican schism.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said she believed the document met the requests of Anglican leaders. But some Episcopal conservatives immediately rejected the statement as too weak, because it does not bar gays and lesbians from becoming bishops.
Bishops released the statement in the final hour of an intense six-day meeting and at a crucial moment in the decades-long Anglican debate over how the Bible should be interpreted.
The 77-million-member world Anglican Communion has been splintering since 2003, when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the U.S.
Anglican leaders had set a Sunday deadline for the Americans to pledge unequivocally not to consecrate another gay bishop or approve an official prayer service for same-sex couples.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, took the unusual step of attending the meeting for the first two days, pushing bishops to make concessions for the sake of unity. Anglican lay and clergy representatives from overseas also participated, scolding Episcopal leaders for the turmoil they've caused. Williams and other Anglican leaders will evaluate the statement in the coming weeks.
Robinson said the talks with Williams and Anglican leaders were "the two hardest days since my consecration." But he said thought the document was fair.
"I think people came here thinking this was going to be Katrina II," he said. "And what in fact happened was a coming together of the bishops of the church."
However, Episcopal conservatives noted that many priests will still conduct same-gender blessing ceremonies, despite the lack of an official prayer. Critics also said the bishops aren't doing enough to provide alternative leadership for conservative dioceses.
"This is a 'try to keep your foot in the door' maneuvering effort," said Canon Kendall Harmon, a leading conservative from the Diocese of South Carolina.
Conservative Bishop John Howe of the Diocese of Central Florida said the statement wouldn't satisfy all the Anglican leaders. But Howe said "most will find it acceptable." Howe is staying in the Episcopal Church, even though his diocese, based in Orlando, has rejected Jefferts Schori as a leader because she is liberal.
In the document, the bishops reconfirmed a resolution passed last year by the Episcopal General Convention, urging bishops "to exercise restraint" by not consenting to a candidate for bishop "whose manner of life presents a challenge" the church and the communion.
Episcopal leaders also demanded that overseas Anglican leaders stop coming into the U.S. to take oversight of breakaway conservative Episcopal parishes. Anglican leaders from Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere have consecrated bishops to oversee congregations in the United States.
Four dioceses — Fort Worth, Texas; Pittsburgh; Quincy, Ill.; and San Joaquin, Calif. — are taking steps to break away and align with an overseas Anglican church. And about 60 Episcopal parishes have left or have voted to leave the national church, according to the national church.
The next crucial event for the communion will be the Lambeth Conference, in July in England. The once-a-decade meeting brings together all the bishops in the Anglican world.
Whether Williams can persuade bishops to attend will be a measure of the strength of the communion.
Williams did not invite Robinson or a U.S.-based bishop, the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, who leads a network of breakaway conservative Episcopal parishes aligned with the Anglican Church of Nigeria. But some Anglican prelates don't want to be even at the same table as Episcopalians who consecrated Robinson.
Separately, Robinson has been in private talks with the archbishop of Canterbury to find a way he can attend, as an observer perhaps, and bishops in New Orleans this week voted to support that effort.