The Anglican Communion voted to censure its American branch, the Episcopal Church, during a meeting in Canterbury, England, called to reflect on the future of the communion.
The vote Thursday (Jan. 14) to suspend the Episcopal Church from voting and decision-making for a period of three years was leaked a day ahead of a press conference that had been scheduled for Friday.
Details of the suspension were first reported by Anglican Ink, which said they came from a leaked communique. The vote passed by a two-thirds margin, the publication said, and included prominent voices among African bishops who have loudly condemned the American church for its liberal stance on gays.
The dramatic demotion follows a string of Episcopal Church decisions stretching back to 2003, when it elected Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as a bishop of New Hampshire. That decision led dozens of U.S. churches to break away from the Episcopal Church and declare their allegiance to a series of rival groups, including the Anglican Church in North America.
In July, the Episcopal Church voted to allow its clergy to perform same-sex marriages, a move not taken by the majority of churches in the Anglican Communion.
“Given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies . . . ” a statement issued by the Anglican Communion reads. “They will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”
“The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the statement also notes. “The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”
The Anglican Communion consists of 44 member churches from around the world, representing about 85 million Christians.
The Episcopal Church, the predominant church of many of the 13 original Colonies, has had an inordinate influence on public life in the United States. The majority of U.S. presidents have been Episcopalians and its influence still far surpasses its 1.8 million U.S. members, who now find themselves without a voice in denominational decisions.
The three-year term of the suspension is the amount of time until the next denomination-wide meeting of the Episcopal Church, when it will vote on a response.
The suspension comes after four days of discussions among church leaders — “primates,” in church parlance — over the Episcopal Church’s position on gay marriage in relation to the position of the broader Anglican Communion. The meetings apparently got testy — British Christian media reported that the archbishop of Uganda, among the most conservative of Anglican branches, walked out amid disagreements.
Jeffrey Walton, the Anglican program director at the Institute for Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., said the suspension of the Episcopal Church is significant, but does not, at this point, represent a schism, or irreparable rupture, within the Anglican Communion.
“This is not kicking the Episcopal Church out of the Anglican Communion, but it is saying is that by making these decisions for the past 12 or so years the Episcopal Church has created this distance and there will be consequences to those decisions.”
Kevin Eckstrom, director of communications for Washington National Cathedral, the seat of newly-installed Presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry, said while this suspension will be greeted by sadness in the Episcopal Church, it has been on a parallel track with the Anglican Communion for a while.
“It is not unlike a couple who are having marital problems and are sleeping in separate bedrooms,” he said. “Maybe now they are going to formalize the separation.”
— by Kimberly Winston | RNS
Reporter Trevor Grundy contributed to this report from Canterbury, England