NEW ORLEANS, United States (AFP) — The US Episcopal Church has agreed to halt ordination of gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions, straining to try to prevent a painful split in the global Anglican Communion.
The church leaders who bowed to international pressure on those issues, however, also vowed late Tuesday to continue to fight for the recognition of the civil rights of homosexuals.
"I have no doubt that the General Convention (in 2009) will revisit these issues," said Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori.
The more liberal stance of the Episcopalian leadership has divided congregations within the United States and threatened a split within the 77 million-member worldwide communion.
"This resolution really is the result of finding common ground to stand on," Jefferts Schori added. "Not everyone was 100-percent happy with every word in this document, as you might imagine. But together we believe that we have found a place that all of us can stand together."
Tuesday's decision came just days before a deadline imposed by global leaders who had threatened that relations would be "damaged at best" if the US church did not reverse its liberal stance on homosexuality and followed two days of crisis talks with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
The leaders of the 2.3 million US Episcopalians said they made the decision "with the hope of mending the tear in the fabric" of the communion.
"We all hope that our sacrificial actions and our united actions at this meeting once again demonstrate to the wider communion that we treasure our membership and we treasure the other members of the Anglican community," Jefferts Schori said at a press conference.
The Episcopal House of Bishops reaffirmed its decision to "exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion."
The church leaders also pledged "not to authorize or use in our dioceses any public rites of blessing of same-sex unions until a broader consensus emerges in the Communion or until (the) General Convention takes further action."
But it was not clear whether clergy would be allowed to carry out unauthorized blessings of same-sex unions.
The statement meant to clarify the church's position noted that clergy have a pastoral duty to "respond with love and understanding to the people of all sexual orientations... (and) maintain a breadth of private responses to situations of individual pastoral care."
Tom Shaw, the bishop of Massachusetts, indicated that same-sex blessings might continue.
"Coming from a state, the only state, that has marriage equality in the United States, I am especially pleased for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the church that we included the statement by the primates where they said that if there were personal, pastoral reasons for the blessing of same-sex unions that was something that was understood," he said at a press conference.
The Anglican church has been divided since Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, was elected as bishop of New Hampshire four years ago, outraging traditionalists, particularly in Africa.
Tensions were further heightened last year when the Episcopal Church elected Jefferts Schori, a woman, as its leader.
A summit of worldwide Anglican leaders who met in Tanzania in February agreed that the Episcopal Church must unequivocally bar official blessings of same-sex unions and the consecration of openly gay bishops.
Conservative US clergy who disagree with the Episcopal Church approach to gays have recently been consecrated to African bishoprics to allow them to minister to traditionalists in the US church.
The Episcopal House of Bishops on Tuesday called for "an immediate end to diocesan incursions by uninvited bishops" and said it would care for the spiritual needs of its more conservative constituents by offering "episcopal visitors for dioceses that request alternative oversight."
"The church needs to respond strongly to block that," Chicago Bishop William Persell said. "If we don't, it will cease to operate successfully as a hierarchical church."
It also issued a strongly worded pledge to protect the civil rights of homosexuals and opposed "actions or policies that does violence to them, encourages violence towards them or violates their dignity as children of God." The bishops said it was their "fervent hope" that Robinson, the gay bishop whose appointment ignited the tensions, would be allowed to participate fully in the communion's most important meeting, the Lambeth Conference next year.
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