A meeting of national leaders of the Anglican Communion on Thursday issued a statement reprimanding the Episcopal Church, its American branch, for having allowed its clergy to perform same-sex marriages.
“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,” a Jan. 14 statement from the meeting reads.
As a result the Anglican Communion is “requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”
The Jan. 11-16 meeting in Canterbury, known as Primates 2016, gathers the heads of 37 national Anglican churches from around the world “to reflect and pray together concerning the future of the Anglican Communion.”
The Anglican Communion has been in tension in recent years over the issues of same-sex marriage. Since 2003, the Episcopal Church has made moves to be more tolerant of or even welcoming to homosexual acts and relationships. These moves have drawn sharp criticism from Anglican communities elsewhere, particularly in Africa.
In July 2015 the Episcopal Church's general convention voted to accept gay marriage, and approved liturgies for their celebration.
The Primates 2016 statement notes that “We gathered as Anglican Primates to pray and consider how we may preserve our unity in Christ given the ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.”
“The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”
The statement called the Episcopal Church's decision “unilateral” and lacking “Catholic unity,” and added that it “is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.”
It went on to say that such actions “further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us.”
The decision to suspend the Episcopal Church from decision making within the wider Anglican community was a formal acknowledgement of the distance between the United States branch and the rest of the Anglican Communion.
The three-year suspension will be revisited in 2018, when the Episcopal Church's next general convention is scheduled.
The primates' statement added that they had asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a task group to help restore trust and to explore the differences between the Episcopal Church and the rest of the Anglican Communion.
When he announced Primates 2016 last September, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, had acknowledged the challenges facing the Anglican Communion over the issue of same-sex marriage.
“The way in which proclamation happens and the pressures on us vary greatly between Provinces,” he stated. “We each live in a different context.
“The difference between our societies and cultures, as well as the speed of cultural change in much of the global north, tempts us to divide as Christians: when the command of scripture, the prayer of Jesus, the tradition of the church and our theological understanding urges unity. A 21st-century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism, so long as we are faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ, together.”
The Episcopal Church's changing perspective on homosexuality had already heightened tensions within the Anglican Communion.
In 2009, former members of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, disaffected by those communities' liberalization on homosexuality, formed the Anglican Church in North America. The ACNA is not part of the Anglican Communion, yet it is in communion with three African provinces of the Anglican Communion.
And even though the ACNA is not part of the Anglican Communion, Welby invited its head, Foley Beach, to be present at Primates 2016.
The primates' statement was to have been released Jan. 15, but their decision had been leaked earlier on Thursday. As a result they decided to release their agreed-upon document in full, “in order to avoid speculation.”