As breakaway Anglicans in the United States question The Episcopal Church's alleged rejection of "obvious scriptural teaching," the denomination's leader made it clear that they are living as Jesus did.
"What does it mean to follow Jesus? How did Jesus live? With whom did he eat? With whom did he converse?" Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori posed at a public forum at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on Sunday.
"Jesus hung out with people on the margins. He hung out with people who were unacceptable to the Judaism of his time," she pointed out. "I think that's what it means to follow Jesus."
Jefferts Schori happened to be in San Francisco on the day of the deadline set by Anglican leaders for The Episcopal Church – the U.S. branch of Anglicanism – to roll back support for same-sex unions and homosexual ordination. There, she confirmed that the U.S. church would not retreat but are willing to "pause."
The Episcopal head had just come out of a historic meeting in New Orleans with the Episcopal House of Bishops where they released a statement to "exercise restraint" by not consecrating openly gay bishops or authorize public rites of blessing of same-sex unions. The statement was a response to the deadline set by Anglican leaders.
Jefferts Schori, who is nearing her one-year mark as the first female head of The Episcopal Church, clarified that the statement was a reiteration of the stance of its General Convention – the highest policy-making body – as the U.S. church continues to move toward the "full inclusion" of gays and lesbians.
"All people – including gay and lesbian Christians and non-Christians – are deserving of the fullest regard of the Church," Jefferts Schori asserted during the discussion before Grace's Sunday service. "We're not going backward."
Groups of conservative Anglicans were disappointed but not surprised at the Episcopal bishops' response last week. With little hope that The Episcopal Church would reverse course, the Anglican dissidents timed their first Common Cause Council meeting to take place on the heels of the gathering of Episcopal bishops. The Common Cause Partners, an alliance of 10 conservative and breakaway Anglican groups, announced Friday that they have taken the first steps toward forming an alternative structure to The Episcopal Church as a way to remain faithful to Anglican tradition and Christian orthodoxy.
"The church in the West has lost its way," the Rt. Rev. Robert Duncan, the bishop of Pittsburgh, said in the announcement, adding that the U.S. church body is "weak, in decline and uncertain about Jesus."
"A schism of sorts seems inevitable," said the Very Rev. Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral and moderator of Sunday's forum.
As many continue to predict the split within the third largest Christian denomination in the world, Jefferts Schori notes that there are many Anglican churches around the globe who think the way The Episcopal Church does.
"We have friends everywhere," she said, noting that there are churches worldwide in accord with the direction of The Episcopal Church.
Meanwhile, much of the leaders in the Global South, where some of the largest Anglican provinces are housed, have remained fierce critics of the U.S. church body's liberal direction.
Believing the Anglican Communion should minister to a variety of views, Jefferts Schori said, "The pastor's job as shepherd is to mind the whole flock," alluding to the biblical parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in search for the one lost one.
"I am continually, prayerfully reminded of those who are wandering off. The job of the church is to reach ever wider to include the whole."
Anglican leaders who made the request for an unequivocal pledge from The Episcopal Church not to consecrate another openly gay bishop or authorize same-sex unions are now expected to respond to the Episcopal statement. Meanwhile, the Common Cause bishops plan to hold their first constitutional convention late next year for the forming of a separate ecclesiastical structure and seek recognition from Anglicanism's spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams.