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Will a Fierce Battle Over Gay Rights Split the Anglican Church?

There is a "serious crisis" as conservative bishops from the United States are fleeing to South America.
 
 
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BUENOS AIRES, Dec 22 -- On the brink of a split in the global Anglican Communion that no one is eager to enlarge on, the Province of the Southern Cone of South America has become a temporary refuge for conservative bishops from the United States who refuse to countenance the liberal positions taken by the Church in their country.

The crisis began when gay bishops and same-sex unions, including clergy, were accepted in Anglican (or Episcopal) provinces in Canada and the United States. Conservatives who disapproved of these developments fell out with their church communities and sought pastoral oversight from South American provinces, further away geographically but theologically more compatible.

"Nobody (in the Anglican Communion) wants to say let's get a divorce, but when a relationship isn't working, someone has to decide whether or not they stay together, and no one here wants to make the decision," Gregory Venables, the primate (presiding bishop) of the Province of the Southern Cone, which includes the dioceses of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, told IPS.

In 2007, Venables took on pastoral responsibility for the conservative bishops of four dioceses that left the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA). "We had certain links, and after talking with (the Archbishop of) Canterbury, we decided to offer them emergency oversight until there is a more solid structure to contain them," he said.

Venables, who was born in the U.K. but has lived for 30 years in Latin America, said that ECUSA is pressing lawsuits for millions of dollars against the "dissidents," who paradoxically are followers of the orthodox traditions of the Church. There are properties at stake, and bishops who leave ECUSA forfeit their homes and stipends, he said.

The Anglican Communion is a fellowship of Anglican churches with some 77 million faithful in 160 countries. Each of the 38 existing provinces is self-governing, but they are all in communion with Canterbury, the founding see of this church and the residence of its spiritual leader, Archbishop Rowan Williams.

"The problem is that we have no mechanism for solving crises," said Venables. "We don't have a leader or an authority like the Pope (in the Roman Catholic Church) who can take decisions that are binding on other countries. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the first among equals, but the primates of the 38 provinces have full autonomy."

The Anglican Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, and soon after expanded into Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. Millions of new converts were made through missionary efforts in Africa and, to a lesser extent, Asia and Latin America.

At present there are 20 million Anglicans in Nigeria alone, more than in all the Anglo-Saxon countries put together. However, bishops in countries of the developing South have relatively little decision-making power compared with their colleagues in industrialized countries. For instance, their repudiation of the consecration of a gay bishop in the U.S. state of New Hampshire in 2003 was ignored.

"It's not so much about homosexuality as about as how decisions are taken," Venables complained. "Twenty years ago, when ECUSA decided to ordain women, it did so in such a way that dissent was stifled, and many church members don't wish to remain a part of a church that takes liberal decisions."

The crisis in the Anglican Communion was expressed on a number of occasions this year. In July and early August, more than 250 Anglican bishops out of a total of 850 boycotted the traditional Lambeth Conference, celebrated once every 10 years in Canterbury.

 
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