Seven conservative Anglican leaders refused Friday to take Holy Communion with the head of the U.S. branch of the church, who supports ordaining gays and blessing same-sex unions, as the fellowship struggles to avert a split.
The boycott came at the six-day meeting of leaders of the 77-million-member Anglican Communion.
“We are unable to come to the Holy Table with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church because to do so would be a violation of Scriptural teaching and the traditional Anglican understanding,” the archbishops said in a posting on the Church of Nigeria Web site.
The primates, or Anglican leaders, belong to a group known as the Global South — theologically conservative bishops from Africa and elsewhere who have joined forces to expand their influence within the communion and counter liberal-leaning Anglicans.
“This deliberate action is a poignant reminder of the brokenness of the Anglican Communion,” according to the statement from the group.
Similar incident in 2005
It is not the first time conservative archbishops refused Holy Communion with an Episcopal leader. At a 2005 summit in Ireland, more than a dozen archbishops would not attend daily Eucharist with then Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.
Jim Naughton, canon for communications at the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., which accepts gay relationships, criticized the archbishops for making a sacrament a point of protest.
“Imagine if every believer, everywhere insisted on knowing the views of every other worshipper in a church on all the hot-button issues of our time before they would agree to go to Eucharist,” Naughton said. “When you don’t attend a Eucharist because you disagree with the views of the people who are attending with you, you make it seem that the Eucharist is about you. It is not about you. It is about God.”
Splits between Anglicans have been growing for years, but reached a crisis in 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated its first gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The problems mounted last year with the election of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who is the first female head of the U.S. church and the first elected female leader of an Anglican province.
Report on rifts
The protest by the Global South bishops came one day after an Anglican committee released a report saying the Episcopal Church had fulfilled two of three requests of Anglican leaders to heal rifts created by Robinson’s confirmation. The report was seen as favorable to the U.S. church. Conservatives criticized the committee’s conclusion as dangerously misguided.
Supporters of ordaining gays believe the Bible’s social justice teachings take precedence over its view of sexuality. Most Anglicans outside the United States believe gay relationships are sinful.
There is no formal structure for expulsion from the Anglican Communion.
Conservative Anglicans have formed a rival network in the U.S., under the leadership of Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who has called the acceptance of gay relationships a “satanic attack” on the church. Akinola was among those who refused to attend Eucharist with Jefferts Schori.
The Anglican Communion is the world’s third-largest Christian body behind the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches. The Anglican fellowship was founded in the 16th century by King Henry VIII and spread worldwide by the British Empire.