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Archbishop holds out hope for compromise

Says Episcopal- Anglican schism can be avoided

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke to reporters yesterday after a morning of meetings in New Orleans. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke to reporters yesterday after a morning of meetings in New Orleans. (Judi Bottoni/Associated Press)

NEW ORLEANS - The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said yesterday that the breakup of the Anglican Communion would mark an unacceptable "failure" and that he believes compromise is possible between opposing factions over gay rights.

After a tense morning of meetings at which an Egyptian bishop said some Anglicans now view the Episcopal Church as "a different religion," Williams acknowledged "temperatures are very high" in the 77-million member global Anglican Communion. But he sought to tamp down talk of an imminent schism, saying that "despite what has been claimed, there is no ultimatum" facing the Episcopal Church, even though a group of Anglican leaders has asked that the American bishops promise to put a halt to some of their support for gay rights by Sept. 30.

"I think it would be rather an admission of defeat if we said that we were incapable of working together on the issues that divide us," Williams said at a briefing. "Whether we'll get to that point, I don't know. I have to say, 'God forbid,' and mean it."

Conservatives in the Episcopal Church, and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, have been furious with the Episcopal bishops over their decision in 2003 to approve an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire, a move that they say violates the Bible. Summarizing the mood, a Ghanaian laywoman yesterday told the bishops that in her country, homosexuality is viewed as "an abomination."

But Williams yesterday urged unhappy conservative Episcopalians to try to stay in the church; he told a blogger from a Virginia parish that has affiliated with the Anglican Church of Nigeria: "I'd be rather slower than I think some of your friends have been to look for solutions elsewhere."

He also said that the recent trend of African Anglican leaders consecrating American priests as African bishops constitutes "foreign incursions" in the United States and "simply make it harder and harder to find constructive and viable solutions here."

Williams, with the sleeves of his black clerical shirt rolled up, spoke to the media after a day and a half of talks with 159 Episcopal bishops who have gathered here for their semiannual meeting. After the news conference, and lunch, Williams departed for Armenia; he said that next week, after the bishops wrap up their meeting, he would review the results before deciding how to proceed. But he said requests made at a meeting of primates, as Anglican leaders are called, in Dar es Salaam in February - that the bishops pledge not to consecrate any more gay bishops and not to authorize a rite of blessing for same-sex unions - were not set in stone.

"It's been presented, sadly as a matter of a set of demands, and, indeed, intrusions and impositions," he said. "We are, inevitably, in the business of compromise. What is brought up before us will be something that'll have to be scrutinized, thought about, reflected on, digested, and it will take a bit of time."

Although he said there is no ultimatum, Williams made it clear he will be watching closely how the bishops respond to remarks he and other visiting Anglican leaders made Thursday and yesterday in New Orleans. The bishops are scheduled to spend today doing service work in hurricane-damaged areas and tomorrow at worship before they resume deliberations Monday.

"I don't think this day and a half has made very much difference to the unity of the Communion as a whole," Williams said. "I think what will affect it is how what's been said will germinate in the next couple of days, how it will emerge on Monday and what sort of response is made. But I, as always at meetings like this, I'm struck by the sheer will to continue to engage on both sides, and so long as that's there, I don't despair of unity."

Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, who is the leader of a variety of US-based churches that want to stay in the Anglican Communion but not be part of the Episcopal Church, said in an interview yesterday that the meetings were "sobering" in part because the conservatives "saw just how small a minority we are" and in part because liberals "saw clearly what the global consequences are."

Duncan said he expects four or five American dioceses, including his own, to try to affiliate with a foreign province, rather than with the Episcopal Church. He and several other conservative bishops said they were leaving yesterday because they saw no possibility for compromise with the liberal majority of American bishops.

"We're just in two very different places, and there's not a way to put these two pieces easily back together," Duncan said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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