NAIROBI (Reuters) - Western churches risk widening a rift in the Anglican Communion if they follow North America by blessing same-sex marriages or allowing sexually active gays to be bishops, a leader of a traditionalist group said on Friday.
The global association of 80 million Anglicans has split deeply since Canada’s Anglican Church began blessing same-sex couples in 2002 and the Episcopal Church, its U.S. branch, ordained Gene Robinson as its first gay bishop in 2003.
The African churches have been in the vanguard of opposition to same-sex unions and gay or women clergy.
“There is no sign yet that there is any return to Biblical standards,” Peter Jensen, general secretary of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), told Reuters at the group’s second meeting since it first convened in Jerusalem in 2008.
Traditionalist bishops formed GAFCON after refusing to attend the Lambeth Conference, Anglicanism’s 10-yearly world conference, in 2008 because then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had also invited the bishops who consecrated Robinson.
Trying to hold the communion of churches together is the daunting task of Justin Welby, appointed last year to succeed Williams as spiritual leader of the global Anglican family.
Jensen, former Archbishop of Sydney, urged other Western churches to “resist pressure” to follow North America’s example.
Asked if the rift would widen, he said: “It will if the moves by the American Anglicans are transmitted to England, New Zealand, Australia, which is the next port of call.”
This week’s second meeting of GAFCON, held at All Saints Cathedral in Kenya’s capital, brought together 331 of the communion’s 700 or so bishops.
Church leaders at the meeting insisted they were not a “breakaway group” seeking to split from the Anglican Communion but would continue to oppose what they saw as a “false gospel” being preached in the liberal western churches.
“We came to Nairobi seeking God’s guidance for the future. Should we stop? Should we slow down? The bishops told us we must go on,” Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, primate of Kenya and GAFCON chairman, said in a statement.
Welby, whose role as head of the Church of England carries no powers over other Anglican churches, visited Nairobi on Sunday but could not stay for the conference because he was due back in London for the baptism of Prince George on Wednesday.
Welby said in a sermon on Sunday the Communion’s “old colonial pattern” had to be replaced with a more modern structure, without spelling out what it could be.
Jensen suggested traditionalists could consider trying to form their own “province” in the Communion, including those from countries such as the United States with liberal leadership.
That would formally establish the split within the Communion, whose 34 provinces represent churches in single countries or in regions of several neighboring countries.
Jensen said the division was “very profound indeed” and the actions by the former Archbishop of Canterbury meant that his office had “lost some of its power to draw people together.”
The issue of female clergy has also driven a wedge through Anglicanism in recent years. A panel in Britain said on Friday the Church of England could allow women bishops in 2014, a year sooner than expected, if leaders agree new proposals including the appointment of an independent reviewer to rule on disputes.
Women already serve as bishops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
Archbishop Welby supports women bishops but the Church of England, mother church for the world’s 80 million Anglicans, has struggled to unite reformers and traditionalists on the issue.
Secretary General of the church’s General Synod, William Fittall, said he was cautiously optimistic that new measures hammered out since July by a 15-member committee could break the impasse and pave the way for an agreement next year.
He warned another failure would be bad for the church after describing a lost Synod vote last year as a “train crash”.
“We are at the beginning of a new and hopeful phase,” Fittall told a news conference on Friday. “This is clearly unfinished business and it would be very serious business if we got to final approval stage again and it went down.”
The new proposals to next month’s General Synod include appointing an ombudsman to rule on complaints by parishes who do not want a woman bishop and guidance for bishops on how to deal with this situation.
Additional reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Andrew Roche