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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 00:38 GMT 01:38 UK
Anglican church in crisis debate
By Robert Pigott
BBC News, Columbus, Ohio

Gene Robinson (L) speaks to the committee meeting
The appointment of Gene Robinson still causes repercussions
The Anglican Church in the United States is holding what is arguably the most important meeting in its history.

The Episcopal Church has been given until the end of its governing Convention to toe the traditionalist line of the rest of the Anglican Communion or face expulsion.

The crisis in the worldwide Anglican Church - which claims 75 million members - started when the Episcopal Church ordained the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in November 2003.

Since that event traditionalist Anglicans - many of them in the populous churches in developing countries - have been trying to get rid of the Episcopal Church.

Compromises

There is a compromise plan on the table at the meeting in Columbus, Ohio.

The Episcopal Church fails to acknowledge - as traditionalists demand - that it was inherently wrong to ordain a gay man as bishop

It goes some way to meeting the three key demands of the rest of the Communion - that the Episcopal Church should repent its decision to ordain Gene Robinson, that it should introduce a moratorium on future gay bishops and that it should end the blessing of same-sex unions in church services.

But there is already high-level criticism of the Episcopal Church's response - including from the UK's Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.

Dr Sentamu - second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in seniority in the Church of England - queued for the microphone at a packed open meeting to argue that it was insufficient to repair "a broken friendship".

The rest of the Communion demands repentance from the Americans for ordaining Gene Robinson, that is, an acceptance that the act itself was wrong.

Instead, the wording so far proposed by the Episcopal Church offers repentance only for the effect on the wider Communion, including the pain other Anglicans are suffering.

Attendees listen to the debate at the meeting of the Episcopal Church
The traditionalists and moderates could split the church

They fail to acknowledge - as traditionalists demand - that it was inherently wrong to ordain a gay man as bishop, and Archbishop Sentamu said: "I'm not sure your resolutions create a space for communion."

In church terms, this was strong stuff from such a senior figure, and on the face of it, represented robust support for the traditionalists.

Dr Sentamu had even read out a message from Dr Williams, burnishing his appearance as a representative of the mainstream Church.

But all sides are keen to stress that Dr Sentamu is in Columbus in a personal capacity, and traditionalists are suspicious.

They fear he is part of an attempt to get a compromise voted through the Convention, and that his criticism on Wednesday night was designed to bolster his credibility as a stern critic so he can later deem a slightly amended American response to be sufficient.

The Archbishop's criticism was not the only contribution from England.

The Convention was buzzing after another highly influential figure, the Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, had written to criticise it for using slippery language capable of multiple interpretations.

He criticised the wording of proposals to end official church blessings of same-sex unions and another to "exercise extreme caution" before ordaining gay bishops.

Moderates versus traditionalists

Traditionalists want water-tight language.

They suspect the Americans of playing for time, making sufficient apparent concessions to buy off more moderate conservative opinion around the world, and stave off robust action to expel the Episcopal Church.

Dr Wright, a key influence in devising the demands made of the Episcopal Church, said baldly that if the current proposals were passed, then the Americans would have "specifically, deliberately and knowingly decided not to comply", and was in effect, choosing to "walk apart" from the rest of the Church.

Gene Robinson
Gene Robinson became the ninth Bishop of New Hampshire

Perhaps the greatest significance of Dr Wright's 11th-hour broadside is his influence with exactly those moderate conservatives in developing countries whose reaction to the outcome in Columbus could be so important.

One of the special commission that drew up the proposals for the Episcopal Church told me his intervention was "unhelpful".

But none of this means the American Church are necessarily about to respond to the traditionalist call for "clarity".

Gene Robinson himself was at the same meeting as the Archbishop of York and also approached the microphone to tell the Episcopal Church that its convention was "not about saving the Anglican Communion".

He said the Church should see the face of Jesus in gay and lesbian people as it had in black and disabled people.

"We cannot make decisions about what the Anglican Communion will or will not do," he said.

That observation may not be strictly correct.

What the Episcopal Church decides to do about sexuality will have a pretty strong effect on what the Communion does, and most of the delegates here in Columbus know that.


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