In an extraordinary move, two foreign Anglican primates, who believe the Episcopal Church has strayed from its biblical roots, have consecrated two U.S. priests as bishops to minister to conservative church members.
The move, fueled by a dispute over the acceptance of homosexuality and the ordination of women, was angrily denounced by the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop. The Archbishop of Canterbury also criticized the consecrations.
On Saturday, the archbishops of the provinces of Rwanda and of South East Asia consecrated the Rev. Charles H. Murphy III, of South Carolina, and the Rev. John H. Rodgers Jr., of Pennsylvania, in a ceremony attended by four other bishops in Singapore.
The primates took the action, they said, to reverse what they called a 30-year decline in the membership of the 2.5 million-member Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion. The 30 percent drop in membership, the primates say, reflects a crisis of faith in the U.S. church and a straying from its biblical foundations.
The two newly consecrated bishops will provide pastoral support to clergy and congregations in this country who request it and will plant missions in areas "where there are receptive communities and little faithful witness in the Episcopal Church," according to a news release issued after the consecration at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Singapore.
Murphy leads a conservative group called First Promise and is rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pawley's Island, S.C. Last year, the members of First Promise called for a new conservative province in the U.S. that would be independent of the Episcopal Church. Rodgers is dean emeritus of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, a traditionalist seminary in Ambridge, Pa.
In a letter sent Monday to all the bishops in the United States, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said he was "appalled by this irregular action and even more so by the purported 'crisis' that has been largely fomented by them and others, and which bears very little resemblance to the church we actually know, which is alive and well and faithful."
In a separate letter Griswold sent to the other 37 primates who lead churches in the Anglican communion, he wrote that he was "profoundly disturbed by the caricature that has been presented of the Episcopal Church in the United States as being disregarding of scripture and the classical doctrines of the church."
The dispute reflects a widening split in the Anglican communion over the issue of homosexuality. The division was highlighted during the August 1998 Lambeth Conference, a worldwide meeting held every decade, which adopted a resolution that included a strong condemnation of homosexuality.
The strongest support for the resolution came from Asian and African conservatives, with support from conservative church members in Europe and North America. In the Episcopal Church, some bishops have ordained openly gay priests, and there is a growing move to recognize faithful same-sex relationships among church members and bishops in the United States and Europe.
An international delegation of bishops who visited the U.S. church last year issued a report before Christmas critical of the Episcopal Church because of the acceptance among some of its members of same-sex relationships and the ordination of women.
But the leader of that delegation, Archbishop Harry Goodhew of Sydney, Australia, issued a statement decrying the consecrations. "While I appreciate the concern and frustration that has prompted this action, I wish to express my profound disappointment that these consecrations have taken place at this time and in this manner," Goodhew said.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who is traveling in southern Africa, issued a statement through his office, saying the world's primates intend to discuss the matters that prompted the action at their meeting next month in Lisbon, Portugal.
"It has come as a grave disappointment to the Archbishop, as it is his view that such consecrations are irresponsible and irregular and only harm the unity of the Communion," the statement said.
The Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, was out of the country yesterday and unavailable for comment. But the Rev. John Rabb, the diocese's suffergan bishop, called the action "un-Anglican and unprecedented."
"I'm very angry about it and very disappointed, because I think it's wholly inappropriate," Rabb said.
Whether the new bishops will be allowed into a diocese is a decision that will be up to individual local bishops, Rabb said.
"They have no authority really within the Episcopal Church because they've been consecrated in a very irregular, highly uncanonical way, and I suspect many would say it was in violation of church law and polity," he said.