Episcopal leader to defend church at conference

NEW YORK — Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was installed as head of the U.S. church less than two years ago, inheriting a mess not of her own making.

The global Anglican Communion was in an uproar over the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Long-simmering differences over Scripture and the global Anglican fellowship erupted into a threat of full-blown schism.

Jefferts Schori, a theological liberal who supported Robinson’s election, has tried to ease the tensions in meetings with other Anglican leaders.

Starting Wednesday, she will be explaining the church’s actions in her broadest venue yet: the Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade meeting of Anglican bishops from around the world. Jefferts Schori said she’s looking forward to the "face-to-face conversation" at the event.

"We’re far more diverse than we’re presented in some quarters," she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press at Episcopal headquarters in New York. "We have people all over the theological spectrum and liturgical spectrum."

It won’t be an easy sell.

About 200 conservative Anglican bishops won’t even be there. They are boycotting the 18-day event outside London because the U.S. bishops who consecrated Robinson were invited. (For the sake of unity, the Anglican spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, barred Robinson and a handful of other bishops from the assembly.)

But that won’t mean a conflict-free Lambeth for Episcopal bishops.

Tradition-minded church leaders who want the Anglican family to stay together despite its rifts will attend. They will undoubtedly ask Jefferts Schori about complaints that the 2.2 million-member U.S. church is mistreating its conservative minority.

Of the tensions within the American church, Jefferts Schori said "we’ve attempted to deal with it in the Christian community" but haven’t always been successful.

Although the exact figure is in dispute, Episcopal officials say that fewer than 100 of the more than 7,000 U.S. Episcopal parishes have voted to split off since Robinson was elected.

The entire Diocese of San Joaquin, based in Fresno, Calif., voted to withdraw from the denomination, and the Diocese of Pittsburgh is poised to do the same this fall.

The national church is suing to retain hold of the San Joaquin diocese and its many millions of dollars in property. Another lawsuit is moving through the courts over 11 breakaway churches in Virginia. Critics have called the legal fights "un-Christian" and have asked Episcopal leaders to halt the lawsuits.

But Jefferts Schori said, "We really don’t have the authority or the moral right to give away those gifts that have been given by generations past and for the benefit of generations now and the benefit of generations to come."

Last month in Jerusalem, conservatives from around the world held the Global Anglican Future Conference and said they hoped to create a North American province for breakaway conservatives in the Episcopal Church and the liberal-leaning Anglican Church of Canada.

Already, Anglican archbishops, called primates, from Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and South America have taken oversight of seceding U.S. parishes. At Lambeth, Jefferts Schori said she will ask Williams "to encourage other parts of the communion to cease their incursions."

"It’s totally opposed to a traditional Christian understanding of how bishops relate to each other," she said. "That’s the biggest difficulty. They’re setting up as something else in the same geographical territory."

Williams already has spoken out against the idea of a North American province, but Anglican conservatives defend the idea as critical for the spiritual well-being of traditionalists.

While Robinson won’t attend the Lambeth meeting, he will be just outside the event.

He is preaching at a British church, despite a request from Williams that he refrain from doing so. A group of Episcopal bishops will host two receptions for Robinson outside the Lambeth Conference grounds so other Anglican bishops can meet and speak with him.

Jefferts Schori said she didn’t ask Robinson to refrain from preaching and said his presence on the outskirts of the conference "doesn’t make my life more difficult."

"I think it’s an opportunity for others to meet him as a human being, as a member of this church, as an honored member of this church," she said.

Liberal Christians believe that committed same-sex relationships are permitted under the Bible’s social justice teachings. Conservatives disagree — and they are a majority in the 77 million-member Anglican fellowship. The communion, a group of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England, has a long tradition of accommodating different views, but it’s unclear whether that broad practice will continue.

"Some people think that you can read the Bible without understanding the original context and simply take literally what you read. We will interpret — and it’s an important part of faithful living," Jefferts Schori said. "To assume there is only one way of reading is hubris."

To prepare for the meeting, the presiding bishop said she has been speaking and praying with other Episcopal leaders. She is urging them to have realistic expectations for the event.

"Conversations that are challenging can’t be solved in one meeting," she said. "These issues aren’t going to be finished by the end of the summer."

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