Leaders of the 80-million-member Anglican Communion decided Thursday to suspend its U.S. affiliate, the Episcopal Church, for a three-year period in response to a decision last year allowing priests to marry same-sex couples.
Leaders of Anglican denominations from around the world headed into their summit this week in Canterbury, England bracing for a schism in the Communion over the issue. A conservative bloc known as the Global Anglican Future — or GAFCON — was threatening to walk out of the meeting if the Episcopal Church was not censured, and the global head of the church, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, went as far as to tell the BBC that such a split "would not be a disaster."
One church leader, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of the Church of Uganda, did withdraw from the meeting after the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada — which is due to vote on performing same-sex marriages in 2016 — rejected his request that they voluntarily withdraw. But the conservative bishops ultimately prevailed.
"Recent developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage," the gathered primates, or heads of each of the thirty-eight churches in the Anglican Communion, said in a statement, also appearing to signal that a similar step could be taken against the Canadian church if it formally allows same-sex marriages.
“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome,” Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry told the body ahead of the vote in remarks he later provided to Episcopal News Service.
“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all," Curry continued. "While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.”
The vote means that the Episcopal Church will no longer have a vote in church bodies and will not be able to represent the worldwide Communion in ecumenical bodies.
The Episcopal Church is a relatively small denomination in the United States, accounting for just 1.2 percent of Americans. But the debate over homosexuality within the denomination has had global implications.
The debate over greater acceptance of same-sex relationships polarized the Communion in meetings stretching back almost two decades. When a group of conservative churches in the United States broke away in 2007 from the Episcopal Church in response to the 2003 consecration of out gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, some attempted to reorganize under the archbishop of the Church of Uganda.
These direct confrontations within the communion contributed to the growing concern over homosexuality in some African countries with large Anglican churches, such as Uganda and Nigeria. Both nations later enacted broad anti-LGBT laws in 2014, though Uganda's was ultimately struck down by the country's Constitutional Court.