The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, announced April 16 that he intends to visit the United States this autumn in response to the invitation from the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church.
Speaking in a news conference in Toronto, Williams said he would make the visit together with members of the Standing Committee of the Primates, of which Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is a member, and the Anglican Consultative Council.
"I look forward to some sharing of our experiences as pastors as well as discussion of the business of the Communion. These are complicated days for our church internationally and it's all the more important to keep up personal relationships and conversations," he said. "My aim is to try and keep people around the table as long as possible on this, to understand one another, and to encourage local churches on this side of the Atlantic and elsewhere to ask what they might need to do to keep in that conversation, to keep around the table."
Williams said the meeting will take place during the House of Bishops' previously scheduled fall gathering in New Orleans September 20-25.
"I am glad that he has accepted this invitation, and I know the other bishops will be glad, as well," Jefferts Schori told ENS in an interview following Williams' announcement. "We look forward to a conversation together in September."
Jefferts Schori said that she has received replies from some members of the Joint Standing Committee indicating their plans to attend. Replies from other members are still pending at this time, she said.
This will be the first time Williams has met with the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops or attended a meeting of any of the church's leadership bodies such as General Convention or Executive Council.
The House of Bishops said on March 20 "there is an urgent need for us to meet face to face with the Archbishop of Canterbury and members of the Primates' Standing Committee" and requested and urged Jefferts Schori and Williams to negotiate a meeting "at the earliest possible opportunity."
Jefferts Schori has underscored in earlier interviews that the House of Bishops' resolution inviting the Archbishop of Canterbury to meet with them was passed unanimously.
When Williams did not respond, there was speculation that he would not accept the bishops' initiation.
"Whatever has been said in the press, there's never been any suggestion I should decline that invitation," Williams said at the Toronto news conference. "These are difficult days because I think the (global Anglican) Communion in recent years has had to face the fact that the division on certain subjects, especially human sexuality, has been getting much more deep and bitter and threatens to divide us."
The bishops' request came in the form of a resolution passed during their March 16-21 meeting at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas, northwest of Houston. It was one of three resolutions the bishops passed in response to a communiquÃ© issued by the Primates of the Anglican Communion at the end of their meeting in February in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In their communiquÃ©, the Primates -- the leaders of the Communion's 38 provinces -- recommended a so-called "pastoral scheme" for "individuals, congregations and clergy, who in the current situation, feel unable to accept the direct ministry of their bishop or of the Presiding Bishop" to enable them "to exercise their ministries and congregational life within The Episcopal Church." The plan would revolve around a "pastoral council" of up to five members including two nominated by the Primates, two by the Presiding Bishop, and a Primate of a province of the Anglican Communion nominated by the Archbishop of Canterbury to chair the Council.
In one of the House of Bishops' three resolutions and again in a letter issued to the Church at the end of the March meeting, the bishops affirmed their desire to remain part of the Anglican Communion but said that the plan would be "injurious" to the Episcopal Church. It urged the Church's Executive Council decline to participate in it.
While the communiquÃ© described the "pastoral scheme" as being recommended, it has been reported that Williams' had actually set March 16, the first day of the House of Bishops' meeting, as the deadline for appointments to be made to the Pastoral Council.
The Executive Council began its discussion of the communiquÃ© during its March meeting in Portland, Oregon, and will continue that conversation at its next meeting in June in Parsippany, New Jersey.
In their communiquÃ©, the Primates also gave the House of Bishops, via a response from Jefferts Schori, until September 30 to agree to "make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorise any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention" and "confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion."
The Primates warned that "if the reassurances requested of the House of Bishops cannot in good conscience be given, the relationship between The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole remains damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion."
A split in the Anglican Communion would be terrible, Williams said in Toronto.
"I believe passionately that we need each other in the Anglican Communion. A communion divided into a liberal segment and a conservative segment would be very, very much impoverished on both sides and to the degree that it would isolate the churches of the developed world from some of the more vulnerable churches of the global south," he said.
Williams said he hoped that the New Orleans meeting would result in better understanding on the part of the American church as to what the primates, or national bishops, are attempting to communicate.
He said he also hoped to understand, from the meeting, the problems the primates' request is causing for the American church, under its constitution.
"I'm still waiting to see what the Episcopal Church will come up with as an alternative. The reaction was a very strongly worded protest against what they see as interference, but if not that, then what? I've spoken privately to people in the United States and am waiting to see," he said.
Williams is in Canada for two days. On April 16 he was due to visit the Anglican Church of Canada's offices and Trinity and Wycliffe theological colleges, from whom he will receive honorary degrees. Williams will deliver a joint lecture for both institutions. On April 17 he will lead a retreat for the Anglican Church of Canada's bishops.
He was asked during the news conference what the consequences might be if the Canadian church's governing convention, General Synod, decides at its June meeting to allow dioceses the so-called "local option" of deciding whether to bless same-gender unions and to explore changing the marriage canon to admit gay couples.
"I won't speculate on outcomes, but I don't think it takes rocket science to work out that (a positive decision) will pose some problems," he said. Anglican churches in other areas of the world, particularly in the southern hemisphere, are vehemently against liberalizing attitudes toward homosexuality, believing it contrary to Scripture.
Canada's General Synod must make its own decisions, but "I hope whatever decision is made will be made out of a resolution to maintain the highest degree of communion possible across the Anglican world, and not just to say that is an unfortunate casualty," Williams said.
He would like to see, he said, "some awareness of what level of consensus is needed for a church to go forward with a sense that a decision is owned not just by a slender majority but by a solid, defensible body of prayerful opinion."
(A resolution prepared for the General Synod meeting calls for a vote of 60 percent to approve same-sex blessings.)
Williams added that he hoped that members of General Synod would ask the question, "What is for the health of the body of Christ, both locally and globally?"
"Is there more than one form of covenanted sexual union that is sacramental of God's grace? The second question is, what about the authority of Scripture? I think there is more than one way of answering that, but that is clearly one of the questions," he said.
It's not, he said, "just about nice people who want to include gay and lesbian Christians and nasty people who don't. It is a question on which there is real principled disagreement. What are the forms of behavior the church has the freedom to bless, and be faithful to Scripture, tradition and reason? That is the question that is tearing us apart at the moment because there are real differences of conviction."
Williams' visit comes following remarks from Canadian Archbishop Andrew Hutchison criticizing Williams' handling of the tensions within the Communion. The British newspaper the Telegraph reported that Hutchison accused Williams of being "indecisive" and said his handling of the disagreements over homosexuality has been "disappointing and lacking."
Hutchison appeared with Williams at the April 16 news conference and Williams thanked him for his hospitality.
To those who believe the church is very slow about making these kinds of decisions, Williams said during the news conference that he doesn't mind "a slower process of decision-making that is fully owned."
During his Canadian visit, Williams will receive honorary degrees from the University of Toronto and attend a retreat with Canadian bishops at the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
During that retreat, a group of clergy and lay persons from the Episcopal Dioceses of Western New York and Rochester plan to gather outside the retreat center to pray for Williams and for the Canadian bishops as they meet together.
"We pray that the Lord will bless their time together; we pray that that the Lord will draw these bishops closer together in Christian fellowship; and we pray that by God's grace the Anglican Communion will be stronger as a result of this gathering," said the Rev. Earle King of Grand Island, New York, in a news release. "Our prayers and singing at our vigil are to this primary goal."
The group planned to deliver letters to Hutchison and Williams during the vigil to apprise them of the prayer vigil's presence during their retreat.