NEW YORK – Anglican leaders on Thursday temporarily restricted the role of the U.S. Episcopal Church in their global fellowship as a sanction over the American church's acceptance of gay marriage.
Episcopalians have been barred for three years from any policy-setting positions in the Anglican Communion while a task force is formed that will try to reconcile conflicting views over sexuality in the 85-million-member family of churches. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the United States.
The announcement came near the end of a weeklong meeting in Canterbury, England, called by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, to heal rifts over same-sex relationships and keep the Anglican Communion from splitting apart. Welby, the Anglican spiritual leader, does not have the authority to force a compromise. He set a news conference Friday in Canterbury to explain the leaders' decision.
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who attended the meeting, told the other leaders their vote "will bring real pain" to gays and lesbians and to Episcopalians "committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love." Still, he said he was committed to the Anglican family.
The Global Anglican Future Conference, which represents theologically conservative Anglican leaders worldwide, had sought sanctions against the U.S. church, and some members said they would walk out of this week's meeting unless some penalty was applied. One leader, Ugandan Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, did so. In a statement Thursday, the conference known as GAFCON said their leaders were pleased by the outcome of the meeting, but "this action must not be seen as an end, but as a beginning."
Anglicans, whose roots are in the missionary work of the Church of England, are the third-largest grouping of Christians in the world, behind Roman Catholics and the Orthodox.
The fellowship has been fracturing for decades over gay relationships, women's ordination and other issues. Those rifts blew wide open in 2003 when the New York-based Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire. Last year, the top U.S. Episcopal legislative body, or General Convention, voted to authorize gay marriages in their churches.
The most vocal protests to the Episcopal embrace of gay rights came from Africa, home to some of the fastest-growing churches in the Anglican communion and the deepest opposition to gay relationships as a violation of Scripture. Many African countries have criminalized gay relationships.
Theological conservatives from around the world joined together to form the Global Anglican Future Conference as a fellowship within the communion, distancing themselves from the U.S. Episcopal Church and refusing to participate in some Anglican gatherings.
In 2009, Anglican national leaders in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and other church provinces helped create the Anglican Church in North America, as a theologically conservative alternative to the U.S. Episcopal Church. Welby had invited the leader of the conservative North American body to participate in the Canterbury assembly.
The press office for the Anglican leaders in Canterbury said the statement released Thursday affirmed the leaders' "unanimous commitment to walk together." The statement acknowledged "deep differences" over understanding of marriage and said the majority in the meeting "reaffirm" the teaching that marriage is only the union of a man and a woman. The leaders called the Episcopal Church approval of gay marriage "a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching" of the majority of Anglicans.
As a result, Episcopalians "no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies," and have the equivalent of observer status in Anglican commissions, the leaders said.
Robinson, in response, posted on his Twitter account, "God's judgment against those who include too many will be less harsh than the judgment against those who include too few."
While the U.S. Episcopal Church is alone among Anglican provinces in approving gay marriage, other Anglican national churches, in Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand and Scotland, have taken steps toward accepting same-sex relationships. The top body of the Anglican Church of Canada is scheduled to vote in July on a proposal that would authorize gay marriage. A spokeswoman for the Canadian church said its leader, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, would comment after the news conference Friday.