NEW YORK — Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said Friday the U.S. Episcopal Church will not roll back its acceptance of gay marriage despite sanctions imposed this week by Anglican leaders.
In a phone interview from England, where he attended the gathering of top Anglican archbishops, Curry said he told his fellow leaders they should expect no change. The top Episcopal legislative body, called General Convention, last year voted overwhelmingly to authorize same-sex marriage ceremonies in church. In response, Anglican leaders Thursday stripped the Episcopal Church of any role in deciding doctrine or determining how the Anglican Communion operates for three years, effectively reducing the church to observer status in the 85 million-member global fellowship.
"They heard from me directly that that's not something that we're considering," Curry said. "They basically understand we made our decision, and this is who we are, and we're committed to being a house of prayer for all."
Curry said the church was resolved to work toward building acceptance of same-sex relationships throughout the Anglican fellowship, which the Episcopal Church represents in the United States. A majority of Anglican leaders at the meeting affirmed the teaching that marriage is only the union of a man and a woman.
"We are loyal members of the Anglican Communion, but we need to say we must find a better way," Curry said. "I really believe it's part of our vocation."
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of the Anglican family, had organized the assembly in Canterbury to help avoid a split in the fellowship that had been building for decades over differences about homosexuality, women's ordination and other issues.
Those rifts blew wide open in 2003 when the New York-based Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire. Ever since, theological conservatives, led by Anglican leaders in Africa, have demanded some penalty for the U.S. church. Many have distanced themselves from the Episcopal Church and in 2009 helped form an alternative to the U.S. denomination, called the Anglican Church in North America.
Welby does not have the authority to force a resolution of the conflict.
In their statement from this week's meeting, Anglican leaders called the Episcopal Church approval of gay marriage "a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching" of the majority of Anglicans. As a result, Episcopalians "no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies," and could not vote or fully participate in Anglican committees, the leaders said.
The statement also included a condemnation of "homophobic prejudice and violence" and rejected criminalization of homosexuality, which has become common in African countries.
"For me, it is a constant source of deep sadness that people are persecuted for their sexuality," Welby said at a news conference in Canterbury Cathedral, at the end of the meeting. He expressed "how sorry I am for the hurt and pain in the past and present that the church has caused and the love sometimes that we have completely failed to show."
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Outside, gay rights demonstrators, many from Africa, waved signs and sang. "We are here talking about human beings, real people who are having their lives torn apart," said Jayne Ozanne, a leading gay rights activist in the church.
Anglicans, who trace their roots to the Church of England, are the third-largest grouping of Christians in the world, behind Roman Catholics and Orthodox.
The Anglican Church of Canada is scheduled to vote in July on a proposal that would change church law to allow same-sex marriage. If the change is approved, it would have to be reaffirmed at the church's next legislative meeting, or General Synod, in three years. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, who attended the Canterbury gathering, said the penalty for the Episcopal Church will be a major consideration.
"Obviously, this whole thing will weigh pretty heavily on the minds of people going into the General Synod," Hiltz said in an interview. "If we vote for a change in the canon on marriage there will be some consequence."
At the news conference, Welby underscored that the meeting had averted any break and that the Anglican leaders "unanimously indicated that they wanted the churches of the Anglican Communion to walk together." He announced the next once-a-decade meeting of all Anglican bishops, called the Lambeth Conference, would take place in 2020, an announcement he had delayed as he worked to keep the communion together.
Both Welby and Curry said there had been no discussion of the specifics of this process or what would have to happen over the next three years for the Episcopalians to be restored to full participation in the global fellowship. Anglican conservatives, who have affiliated as the Global Anglican Future Conference, said they were pleased with the penalty against the Episcopal Church, but were concerned that the sanctions didn't go far enough and that Anglican leaders did not clearly state what the consequences would be if the Episcopal Church failed to change its position on gay marriage.