Top Anglican bishops concluded a tense five-day meeting in Africa Monday (Feb. 19) by calling for a new international council to solve disputes between liberals and conservatives in the Anglican Communion and its U.S. branch -- the Episcopal Church.


At the heart of the meeting was the Episcopal Church's progressive stance on human sexuality -- especially the 2003 election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. Theological conservatives, including Anglican leaders from rapidly growing churches in the "Global South,"

have painted their American counterparts as heretics, and demanded they be reprimanded or excommunicated.


The meeting ended with the U.S. church still a member of the Anglican family, although it was clear the primates are taking the conservatives' concerns seriously.


"It's not business as usual," said Bishop Martyn Minns, a former Virigina pastor who has been appointed a missionary bishop to U.S. conservatives by the Anglican Church of Nigeria.


The statement from the Anglican primates, or top bishops, said since 2003, "we have faced the reality of increased tension in the life of the Anglican Communion -- tension so deep that the fabric of our common life together has been torn."


At the 11th hour of their meeting in Tanzania, leaders of the 38 national churches that make up the Anglican Communion issues a series of recommendations to temporarily settle those disputes.


Primary among the recommendations would be a five-member "pastoral council" to act on behalf of the primates in dealing with the Episcopal Church. That council would appoint and oversee a "primatial vicar" to oversee the small but vocal band of conservatives in the 2.2-million member Episcopal Church.


Seven Episcopal dioceses and a number of dissident congregations have refused the leadership of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, citing her support for gay rights in the church. Jefferts Schori said last November she supports the idea of dispatching a bishop in her sted to dioceses where she is not welcome.


It remains to be seen just how the plan would be enacted on the ground in the United States. "When it comes to the scheme, the devil will be in the details," said the Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor of global Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.


The primates' joint statement also called for an unequivocal agreement by U.S. bishops not to authorize any rites or blessings for same-sex unions, and confirm a previous resolution halting the election of any more gay bishops.


The "primatial vicar" and pastoral council would be in place until a covenant agreement could be reached among the 38 national and regional churches.


While that agreement is being drawn up, legal wrangling over church property should be ceased, said Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the de facto head of the 77 million-member Anglican family.


Earlier Monday, Anglican leaders released a draft of a covenant aimed at repairing breaches of trust within the Communion by outlining broad areas of common agreement.


"There was an urgent need to re-establish trust between the churches of the communion," the covenant design group said in a statement.


Appointed by Williams, the group addressed general principles instead of particular issues. Gay marriage and gay clergy, for example, are not explicitly mentioned in the draft.


Each of the 38 national or regional churches in the Anglican Communion are autonomous. But the draft would provide a way for Anglican leaders to discipline churches under "extreme circumstances."


The draft will need "extensive consultation and refining" and must be approved by the Anglican churches before it is finalized at a communion-wide conference, a process that could take several years.


"There needed to be a commitment now to the fundamental shape of the covenant in order to address the concerns of those who feared that the credibility of the commitment of the Anglican Churches and to one another and to the Gospel itself was in doubt," the covenant design group said in a statement.

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