Wrapping up their annual meeting at a North Carolina conference center on Thursday, the presiding bishops, or primates, of the 38 autonomous churches in the Anglican Communion deferred a proposal which would have sanctioned the Episcopal Church.
The 70-million-member Anglican Communion, which has its roots in the Church of England, officially condemns homosexuality. But the Episcopal Church unofficially allows local dioceses to ordain practicing homosexuals and bless same-sex unions.
Conservative leaders in the Bahamas and Argentina wanted to give the primates the authority to reprimand the U.S. church and even excommunicate it if its policies did not change. That proposal will now be considered by an Anglican theological panel.
In a pastoral letter issued at the end of the closed meeting, the primates said they had engaged in honest discussion from both sides.
"We also resolved ... to show responsibility toward each other, and to seek to avoid actions that might damage the credibility of our mission in the world," the primates said.
The leader of the U.S. church, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, had the support of the leader of the communion, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, in derailing the controversial proposal. But Griswold said he has a greater sense of how the actions of the U.S. church affect other members of the communion.
"With the phenomenon of globalization a reality, all that we do and
say in our own country impinges directly and immediately on our global
neighbors," Griswold said in a prepared statement.
When the primates meet again next year, the theological commission may issue a report on the proposal, as well as reflect on a paper about authority within the communion and how each church should understand it.
In their statement, the primates signaled just how delicate this issue has become. "This is a crucial and testing time for our communion, but also a time of vitality, generosity and growth," they said.
Still, there was a noticeable difference between this statement and the one issued when the primates met last year in Portugal. Last year, the primates warned the U.S. church that its "clear and public repudiation" of teachings on homosexuality had "come to threaten the unity of the communion in a profound way."
This year, the primates briefly noted the "widespread fragmentation" within the communion and around the world.
Despite the contentious issues, the longest-serving primate at the meeting said the meeting was marked by "refreshing honesty and candor."
"Our collegiality, friendship and understanding of each other as primates has never been greater," said Archbishop Robin Eames of Ireland.