The Anglican Church and the Episcopal Church insist they are not at war.
However, a group of Anglican bishops have fired a shot across the Episcopal bow with the message: Stop where you're at and reverse course or things could get really messy.
Some media reports last week made it seem as if the Episcopal Church was in danger of being tossed out of the Anglican family after it was suspended from voting for three years on issues of policy and doctrine within the Anglican Communion, which is made up of leading bishops — known as Primates — from the 38 Anglican provinces across the world, including the Episcopal Church in America.
While Episcopalian clergy and lay leaders can debate and discuss issues with other leaders in the Communion, they will have no official say in final decisions.
But the Episcopalians are still part of the Anglican Church and leaders on both sides say there's no intention of kicking the them out. Local religious leaders from both Episcopal and Anglican churches say the situation is far more nuanced than that and is more of a family argument — though a very serious and intense one — than a divorce. The ultimate goal, they say, is for everyone to reconcile.
Regis Nicoll, lay pastor of Hamilton Anglican Fellowship in Chattanooga, says "the sanctions placed on The Episcopal Church are a first, but long overdue, step toward reconciliation and restoration."
The suspension, which came down on Jan. 14 and was approved by two-thirds of the Communion's bishops, focused on the Episcopal Church's acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. That goes against the viewpoint of the majority of Communion bishops, who've said in the past that "homosexual practice" is "incompatible with Scripture," although they add that homosexuals "are loved by God and that all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ."
The ban on voting came after the Episcopal Church passed a resolution last year removing the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman, one of several moves the church has taken in the past decade or so that go against Communion doctrine. The statement released by the Communion after the vote to ban said the Episcopal resolution "represent[s] a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage."
"Given the gravity of its doctrinal offenses, allowing (the Episcopal Church) to remain in the Communion, while suspending it from leadership and decision-making functions, was a modest disciplinary action, mercifully so," Nicoll says.
It's hurtful and disappointing that most of the Primates voted in favor of the ban, says the Rev. Leyla King, rector at Thankful Memorial Episcopal Church, but it is not the end of the discussion, something Anglican pastors acknowledge.
"I understand why many of the Primates are struggling with the Episcopal Church's decision," King says. "And I understand why many members of the Episcopal Church are struggling with this decision internally as well."
But recognizing gay members of the church "is one of many necessary steps we need to take if we are to live out Jesus' call to us to love all, serve all, and carry the good news to all," she says.
While the Communion doesn't officially have the right to ban Episcopals from voting, King says, the move "will likely be respected because of the moral authority that the Primates represent. But following their guidelines is not necessarily required."
The Rev. Brad Whitaker, priest in charge at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, echoes King's statement about the Primate's power.
"As much as it pains me that some of the other churches within the Anglican Communion continue to disrespect the dignity of (gay) people, likewise I do not believe that the Primates have the authority to sanction or pass consequences for those actions of disrespect and exclusion," he says.
The ban "will even further strengthen our resolve to uphold the dignity of every human being," Whitaker says.
The discussion over homosexuality is not a new one. It was a hotly debated topic in the 1998 Lambeth Conference, an assembly of Primates that takes place every 10 years. From that meeting, the Anglican Communion issued the statement about homosexuality being "incompatible with Scripture."
Yet the Episcopal Church has taken steps that fly directly in the face of that doctrine. In 2003, Episcopal Priest Gene Robinson was ordained as a bishop in the church, the first time an openly gay person had been given that title. In 2012, it approved liturgies to bless same-sex marriages, then last year issued the resolution changing its definition of marriage.
Those decisions broke with the Communion "theologically, doctrinally and morally," Nicoll says, and also defied "the authority of Scripture, tradition and reason. The Episcopal Church must recant those to get back in the good graces of the primates, he says.
"The theologically orthodox Primates, who represent the vast majority of the worldwide church, have stood firm that (Episcopal Church's) full reinstatement depends on nothing less than its willingness to repent of its doctrinal and moral error," Nicoll says.
But Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said the church has no intention of retreating on its decisions.
"That's not something that we're considering," Curry told the Associated Press. The Communion-bishops "basically understand we made our decision, and this is who we are, and we're committed to being a house of prayer for all."
But he also said he hopes some sort of agreement can be reached to end the argument.
"We are loyal members of the Anglican Communion, but we need to say we must find a better way," he said. "I really believe it's part of our vocation."
King agrees that the Episcopal Church does not want to split from the Communion.
"As a member of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church has deep and abiding relationships with other provinces of the Communion," King says. "Of course, it is upsetting that something we have done has caused pain or difficulties for our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the Communion. When one member of the Body is hurt, we all hurt."
Nicoll says he believes the two sides can eventually find a way.
"I believe that reconciliation is possible, because my God, our God, is the God of the impossible," Nicoll says.
Whitaker, too, says he's hopeful for the future of the Communion.
"Indeed I am. One of the beauties of our tradition is that we historically do not walk away from one another. We find ways to argue, disagree, struggle with theology, but Anglicans choose to remain together and find a way for that path to serve side by side as faithful disciples of Christ," he says.
Contact Shawn Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327.