The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East is rich in symbolism, but not in the clout that comes from great numbers and wealth.
This branch of the Anglican Communion stretches from Algeria to Iran, a part of the world in which there are few Anglicans, but millions of Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, the archbishop of this tiny Anglican flock dared to bring a blunt message to the powerful Episcopal Church this past week — please be candid as well as careful.
American bishops may believe that God wants them to modernize ancient doctrines about sex, marriage, salvation and the authority of scripture, said Archbishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt. But it's getting harder for other Anglicans to explain news about same-sex unions and gay bishops to their ecumenical and interfaith neighbors at home.
"You may believe you have discovered a very different truth from that of the majority in the Anglican Communion," said Anis, speaking to the men and women of the U.S. House of Bishops gathered in New Orleans. "It is not just about sexuality, but about your views of Christ, the Gospel and the authority of the Bible.
"Please forgive me when I relay that some say you are a different church, others even think that you are a different religion."
This meeting of the U.S. bishops was even more tense than usual because the world's Anglican primates, in a Feb. 19 communiqué from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, had set a Sept. 30 deadline for the Americans to accept an "unequivocal common covenant" not to "authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions." They also requested a freeze on the consecration of bishops who are living in same-sex unions.
Instead, the Episcopal Church's bishops ended their meeting by stressing, once again, that they welcomed "an ongoing process of dialogue" with other Anglicans.
The bishops pledged not to authorize official same-sex union rites and reaffirmed a 2006 General Convention request for regional dioceses to "exercise restraint" on the consecration of bishops "whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion."
After visiting the New Orleans meeting, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams continued to hold out hopes for healing, telling reporters he believes there was "no ultimatum involved" in the Dar es Salaam statement by the primates. He also told the Anglican Journal that he hopes that Anglicans can "demonstrate that it is possible to be a global communion without a central authority."
Archbishop Anis, however, said that the diverse flock that is the modern Anglican Communion should try to find unity in the "essentials of faith, which are defined only by the whole church."
At some point, he said, the Episcopal Church's leaders must clearly state, once and for all, what they believe and why they believe it. If they want to remain part of the Anglican Communion, they need to be honest with the other churches.
"My friends, if you really believe that the truth revealed to you is different from that shown to the rest of the Communion, then you need to uphold that claim with boldness even at the risk of losing unity," he told the bishops. "If you think it is right and necessary to ordain and consecrate practicing homosexuals and that you should bless same-sex partnerships or even marriages, you should be true to what you believe is right and accept the consequences."
The Egyptian bishop was not the only person calling for doctrinal clarity, even if clarity would cause pain. One outspoken progressive said it's time to admit that same-sex blessings are common in many U.S. dioceses and that Episcopal leaders are moving toward open advocacy of the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual clergy.
Same-sex blessings are "happening all over the place, with official sanction of diocesan authorities in a few places," noted Father Scott Gunn, at the Inclusive Church weblog. "We're trying to have it both ways here. We're doing them, but we're saying that they're not sanctioned. …
"We should either come out and say what we're doing and why (with strong biblical and theological support), or we should stop doing it. If we take the first option, let's face the consequences, if any. It is neither honest nor helpful to do something and then say we're not doing it."