(CNSNews.com) - Leaders of the 70-million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion have asked churches in the United States and Canada to withdraw from a key church body for three years while they give further consideration to the row over homosexuality.
They also have urged churches to impose a moratorium on the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions.
The decisions announced late Thursday, which came out of a meeting of Anglican primates in Northern Ireland, are aimed at preventing the 70-million-strong Anglican Communion from fracturing.
But some orthodox Anglicans are not hopeful that they will go far enough to stem a liberal trend they say has already done severe damage to the church.
Earlier in the week the church's titular head, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, urged the bishops to seek unity, but conservatives gave notice that they were prepared to see the church split rather than accept what they regard as sinful behavior.
Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney, Australia, told British radio before Thursday's statement that although a schism would be sad and painful, "there do come times when the authority of the Bible is at stake, and this is one of those times, where to stay together becomes a great difficulty."
In a statement after the primates' communique was released, Jensen said he cautiously welcomed it, as "it buys time for a full resolution of this serious theological and pastoral problem."
Bishops in Africa and Asia -- where more than half the world's Anglicans live -- have led opposition to a decision by the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) to elect an openly homosexual clergyman, Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
Some dioceses in Canada also blessed same-sex unions, deepening the rift.
Last October a year-long investigation into the crisis culminated in the Windsor Report, a document that recommended a moratorium on the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions. ECUSA was urged to "express regret" although no direct discipline was recommended.
The report also called for an end to conservative bishops intervening in other countries. Some congregations in the U.S. have split from ECUSA and placed themselves under the authority of like-minded bishops from other countries.
This week's discussions at the Dromantine conference center in County Down involved 35 of the church's 38 primates, or heads of churches in the 38 Anglican provinces around the world.
They said in their statement that ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada had been asked to voluntarily withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council, a body through which leaders of the national churches meet and consult, until the next once-a-decade Lambeth Conference is held in 2008.
"During that same period we request that both churches respond through their relevant constitutional bodies to the questions specifically addressed to them in the Windsor Report as they consider their place within the Anglican Communion."
Although many Anglicans will welcome the communique, some of the wording is likely to displease some conservatives.
With regard to the moratorium, for example, the statement stops short of insisting that the controversial actions no longer take place, and it does not threaten any sanctions if they do.
Instead, primates are asked "to use their best influence to persuade their brothers and sisters to exercise a moratorium."
Also, although the document affirms a key 1998 church resolution on sexuality -- which declared homosexual practice incompatible with Scripture -- it calls the resolution "the present position of the Anglican Communion," thus implying that that position could change in the future.
Several hours before the statement was released, the academic dean of the Sydney Anglican diocese's Moore Theological College, Mark D. Thompson, predicted that such wording would be used, and he told CNSNews.com that if it was, "many of us will want to ask why the word 'present' is necessary."
He also said that if ECUSA presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, had not been expelled by the time the conference ended, that would be "a telling indictment."
Thompson said he and others were not expecting a statement that would make a substantial difference.
"We are too used to the Anglican way of doing things," he said. "If history is any guide, meetings like this are characterized by compromise and the end result is an ambiguous and innocuous communique which gives the illusion of action but changes nothing."
Thompson said Williams and the primates had the authority to take what he considered the necessary action - declare the actions of the U.S. and Canadian churches unbiblical; and call on them to repent, which could only be demonstrated by the removal of Robinson from office and the removal of the same-sex "marriage" rites in Canada.
"Of course none of this will be done. It is not a lack of authority that is the problem, but a lack of will."
Thompson said the cause of the problem was a "theological drift" in the Anglican Communion over many years.
"Especially in the northern hemisphere, Anglicanism has been dominated by the liberal theological agenda which first qualifies, then reinterprets and finally repudiates the authority of Scripture as the written word of God."
Divisions have been evident for some time, many of them predating the homosexuality row.
In North America alone, groups that have moved away from the increasingly liberal mainstream include the Anglican Mission in America (AMIA), the American Anglican Council, the Anglican Communion in Canada, the Anglican Province of America, Forward in Faith North America, the Anglican Essentials Federation in Canada, the Anglican Network in Canada and the Reformed Episcopal Church.
The AMIA is a movement of churches with an Anglican heritage which joined up in 2000, under the sponsorship of primates based in Singapore and Rwanda. At the time, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, called the move "irregular" and "schismatic."
One AMIA congregation is Christ Anglican Church in Alabama, whose assistant rector, Rob Grafe, said from Mobile Thursday that the outcome of the primates' meeting would "change very little."
Churches like his were in any case focused on their primary goal - to reach "130 million unchurched folks in America."
Grafe said he expected more people to be added to their congregation as a process of "realignment" unfolded, although newcomers may be also be new converts rather than people leaving the Episcopal Church.
Many people had decided to stay in ECUSA, even while believing that what was happening was wrong.
"They pretty much are inclined to just draw a new line in the sand. Some view it as fighting the good fight from within. I can't judge their faithfulness or lack thereof."
Grafe said in his view there were now two churches.
"One reflects the gospel of Jesus which offers the hope of salvation and real change and healing.
"The other church is led to reflect the world back to the world, to stroke and placate and say 'it's going to be okay.' It leaves people in their brokenness and pain, with no hope for healing. It grieves me."
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