LONDON – Anglicans in many parts of the world reacted angrily Wednesday to U.S. Episcopalians' confirmation of their first openly gay bishop, with some threatening to cut ties with the American church. The archbishop of Canterbury tried to avert a split.
The Anglicans' spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (search), appealed for opponents not to act rashly in response to the Rev. V. Gene Robinson's approval Tuesday as bishop of New Hampshire. But Williams acknowledged it would inevitably have a "significant impact" on the worldwide Anglican Communion (search).
"It is my hope that the church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irrevocable decisions are made in response," he said.
After decades of debate among the denominations' branches around the world over homosexuality, Robinson's confirmation threatened to open a painful rift, particularly between doctrinally conservative Anglican leaders in Asia and Africa and more liberal clergy in wealthy, Western countries.
The Episcopal Church (search), with 2.3 million members, is the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member Communion.
Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, said that Robinson's confirmation "has brought much sadness and disappointment."
Akinola, whose church is the largest branch of the Anglican Communion after Great Britain, expressed astonishment that the U.S. Episcopalians were willing to "turn their back on the clear teaching of the Bible on the matter of human sexuality."
His statement said: "The present development compels us to begin to think of the nature of our future relationship, which would be determined after the ongoing consultation with other Provinces and Primates."
Church leaders in Asia and Africa condemned the Americans' decision and threatened to leave the communion, saying homosexuality was against Scripture and unacceptable.
The Episcopal church "is alienating itself from the Anglican Communion," said the Very Rev. Peter Karanja, provost of the All Saints Cathedral, in Nairobi, Kenya.
"We cannot be in fellowship with them when they violate the explicit scripture that the Anglican Church subscribes to," he said. "We'd counsel they reconsider the decision. It's outrageous and uncalled for."
Bishop Lim Cheng Ean, leader of the Anglican Church of West Malaysia, said bishops from the communion's nine-nation Southeast Asian province may discuss cutting ties with the U.S. church at a meeting next week.
"Practicing homosexuality is culturally and legally not acceptable here," he said.
Britain's Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement hailed Robinson's appointment, saying New Hampshire was lucky to have him and urging Anglicans elsewhere to respect the decision.
The group praised the Episcopalians for making "an official and clear step towards creating a genuinely inclusive church."
Williams faced a similar debate in the Church of England recently.
The Rev. Jeffrey John, who is openly gay, was selected as bishop of Reading in May, but backed out after several Anglican bishops from around the world wrote to oppose his appointment. He said he did not want to damage church unity.
Archbishop of Perth Peter Carnley, the primate of Australia's Anglican Church, acknowledged Robinson's appointment would have a negative impact, but doubted it would tear the denomination apart.
"We have to have a debate about how to apply the biblical principles ... to this modern and contemporary issue," said Carnley, who is considered a liberal voice in Australia's Anglican community.
But conservative Sydney Archbishop Peter Jensen said Robinson would not be welcome in his diocese. He urged opponents in the United States to fight the appointment by withholding contributions to church coffers.
"For the first time, a branch of our Anglican church has knowingly appointed a person to this senior position who lives in breach of the Bible," he said.
He called the decision "catastrophic," and said it was the beginning of a "loosening of ties" within the Anglican communion.
The Rev. Martyn Percy, director of the Theological Institute at Manchester University in England, supported the Episcopal Church move.
"Somebody has to break the issue and similar things would have been said about women priests in America 27 years ago," he said.
"I really don't think the argument can be won or lost by appeals to scripture and tradition. The issues are just too complex for that," Percy said. "The Bible is too silent and ambiguous on this."