In a bid to keep the Anglican Communion unified, the archbishop of Canterbury said profound differences among the world's 77 million Anglicans over gay clergy and same-sex unions could divide their church into a "two-track model" yielding "two styles of being Anglican."
The formula could avert a formal breach between liberals and conservatives but bring new strains in the relationship between the global Anglican Communion and American Episcopalians who resolved this month to open the door to ordaining openly gay bishops and to start the process of developing rites for same-sex marriages.
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams insisted that the issue should not be debated "in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication but plainly as what they are — two styles of being Anglican."
In a lengthy message published Monday on his Web site, the archbishop offered a detailed and nuanced response to events at the Episcopal convention in Anaheim, Calif. The Episcopal Church is the official branch of the Anglican Communion in the United States.
The developments were seen by liberals and conservatives as likely turning points in the history of the divided Episcopal Church, reflecting the profound rifts over sexual issues within Anglicanism — the world's third-largest network of Christian churches after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The differences have crystallized around the Episcopal Church's consent in 2003 to the consecration of the church's first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The Episcopalians had agreed to a moratorium on the election of gay bishops, but it was lifted at the convention in Anaheim.
South Carolina Diocese officials have expressed dismay, frustration and concern since the General Convention.
On July 18, Bishop Mark Lawrence wrote an open letter to clergy expressing his views of the convention and the desire of some to push for quick change. "If blessing same-sex unions is morally wrong now, it will be morally wrong in the future," he wrote. "The problem isn't the speed at which the train is moving down the rail: it is the destination to which it is headed."
Writing that the convention's outcome should not be cause for alarm, Lawrence encouraged "steady resolve."
"We face significant challenges. They are no longer the challenges of tomorrow, they are the challenges of today. This cannot be brushed aside as if it is of little consequence."
The archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, which is composed of 38 provinces worldwide. The Episcopal Church claims about 2.3 million members.
In his message, Williams repeated his view that "a blessing for a same-sex union cannot have the authority" of the full Anglican Communion, any more than a blessing for a heterosexual couple living outside marriage would have.
That, in turn, means that as long as the broader church "as a whole does not bless same-sex unions, a person living in such a union cannot without serious incongruity have a representative function in a Church whose public teaching is at odds with their lifestyle."
The issues have confronted the archbishop with deep divisions not simply between liberals and conservatives in the United States but also across the broader church with its many followers in Africa, Britain and elsewhere. Four conservative dioceses in the United States and many individual Episcopal churches have broken away from the national denomination to forge alliances with conservative Anglican groups such as the Anglican Church of Nigeria.
"There is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance: that is, a 'covenanted' Anglican global body, fully sharing certain aspects of a vision of how the Church should be and behave, able to take part as a body in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; and, related to this body, but in less formal ways with fewer formal expectations, there may be associated local churches in various kinds of mutual partnership and solidarity with one another and with 'covenanted' provinces," Williams wrote.
The archbishop has promoted the idea of covenant to overcome the rift. The message continued: "It helps to be clear about these possible futures, however much we think them less than ideal, and to speak about them not in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication but plainly as what they are — two styles of being Anglican, whose mutual relation will certainly need working out but which would not exclude cooperation in mission and service of the kind now shared in the Communion."
Some in the Episcopal Church have insisted that, despite the reaction from conservatives and others in the Anglican Communion, nothing has substantively changed. The media has focused disproportionately on just two resolutions and mischaracterized them as repudiations of previous promises.
Rather than repudiate the so-called moratorium on consecrating gays and lesbians, the convention voted to reaffirm its commitment to the Anglican Communion and the "listening process" urged by previous conferences, wrote Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in an open letter posted online by the Episcopal Church.
"Some have insisted that these resolutions repudiate our relationships with other members of the Anglican Communion," she wrote. "My sense is that we have been very clear that we value our relationships within and around the Communion, and seek to deepen them. My sense as well is that we cannot do that without being honest about who and where we are."
But Jefferts Schori's sentiments were largely dismissed by diocese officials.
At a July 19 meeting hosted at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, the South Carolina Diocese's chancellor, Wade Logan, summarized his experience in Anaheim. "It really is a political convention, that's what it turned into," he told a gathering of about 250.
South Carolina was one of seven conservative dioceses attempting to affirm orthodoxy that were consistently marginalized and ignored, he said.
The Rev. Al Zadig, rector of St. Michael's Church in downtown Charleston, summed up the prevailing attitude of diocese leaders. "The world is coming into the church, and the church says, 'Have your way,' and there's nothing left of theology."
But, Zadig said, he is thankful for the clarity of the moment, equating The Episcopal Church to Unitarianism. "We are not two denominations but two religions," he said.