It seems too soon for the U.S. Episcopal Church to know whether the bishops' latest pledge to exercise restraint in approving another gay bishop will go far enough to help prevent an Anglican schism.
"It will take months and years to really see," said Bishop Martyn Minns, who leads a conservative network of breakaway Episcopal parishes.
The 77-million-member fellowship has been splintering since 2003, when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the U.S.
Episcopal bishops released their pledge to "exercise restraint" Tuesday in the final moments of a six-day meeting - and as the decades-long debate over interpreting the Bible threatens to shatter the world Anglican Communion.
Anglican leaders had set a Sunday deadline for the Americans to pledge unequivocally not to consecrate another gay bishop or approve an official prayer service for same-sex couples.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, took the unusual step of attending the meeting for the first two days, pushing bishops to make concessions for the sake of unity. Anglican lay and clergy representatives from overseas also participated, chastising Episcopal leaders for the turmoil they've caused.
Episcopal bishops responded by affirming a resolution passed last year by the Episcopal General Convention that urged bishops to "exercise restraint" by not consenting to a candidate for bishop "whose manner of life presents a challenge" to Anglicans and the church. The promise falls short of an outright ban.
Episcopal leaders also promised they would not approve official prayers to bless same-gender couples and insisted that most Episcopal bishops do not authorize the ceremonies. However, it is widely acknowledged that many individual priests offer blessings informally in their own parishes and will continue to do so despite Tuesday's pledge.
Williams "is grateful for the care taken to understand and respond to the concerns of the wider Communion," the archbishop's spokesman, Jonathan Jennings, said in London.
Williams and other Anglican leaders will evaluate the bishops' statement in the coming weeks. But before he left New Orleans, the archbishop of Canterbury played down the significance of the Anglican demands, saying "there is no ultimatum involved."
Canon Jim Naughton, a spokesman for the Diocese of Washington, said the statement "reassures our partners in the Anglican Communion that we have taken their concerns seriously." However, Minns said the bishops' statement was "the totally wrong response," and said many Episcopalians are already "voting with their feet."
Four of the 110 Episcopal dioceses - Fort Worth, Texas; Pittsburgh; Quincy, Illinois; and San Joaquin, California - are taking steps to split off from the national church and align with an overseas Anglican church. And about 60 of the more than 7,000 Episcopal parishes have left or have lost a significant number of clergy and members, according to the national church.
Anglican leaders from Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere have violated Anglican tradition that they minister only within their own provinces and have consecrated bishops to oversee breakaway Episcopal congregations in the United States. In their statement Tuesday, bishops said they "deplore" the incursions and "call for them to end."
Conservative Bishop John Howe of the Diocese of Central Florida said the statement wouldn't satisfy all Anglican leaders, but predicted "most will find it acceptable." Howe is staying in the Episcopal Church, even though his diocese, based in Orlando, has rejected Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as a leader because she is liberal.
The next crucial event for the communion will be the Lambeth Conference, in July in England. The once-a-decade meeting brings together all the bishops in the Anglican world. Whether Williams can persuade bishops to attend will be a measure of the strength of the communion.
Williams did not invite Robinson or Minns. But some Anglican prelates don't even want to be at the same table as Episcopalians who consecrated Robinson. Still, Robinson has been in private talks with Williams to find a way he can attend, possibly as an observer.