Facing a possible churchwide schism, the Anglican Communion on Monday gave its Episcopal branch in the United States less than eight months to ban blessings of same-sex unions or risk a reduced role in the world’s third-largest Christian denomination.

Anglican leaders also established a separate council and a vicar to help address the concerns of conservative U.S. dioceses that have been alienated by the Episcopal Church’s support of gay clergy and blessings of same-sex unions. Although the presiding American bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, agreed to the arrangement, some conservatives described it as an extraordinary check on her authority.

The directive, issued after a five-day meeting of three dozen top leaders of the Anglican church gathering in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, constituted a severe rebuke of the small but affluent U.S. branch. Conservative Anglicans described the communique as a landmark document that affirms the primacy of Scripture and church doctrine for the world’s 77 million Anglicans, only 2.3 million of whom are Episcopalians.

“This is very, very, very significant,” said Bill Atwood, who serves as a strategist for a group of the conservative bishops. “It was either call the Episcopal Church back or lose the Anglican Communion, and the group agreed it was better to call the Episcopal Church back.”

The decision comes after years of debate and remonstrations within the Anglican Communion over whether and how to force the Episcopal leaders to conform to the wider church’s view of homosexuality – a controversy that has also enveloped other mainline Christian denominations.

Episcopalians in favor of gay rights immediately urged American bishops to reject the demands. “The American church is not going to just roll over and turn back the clock on blessings,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest in Los Angeles and president of Integrity, an Episcopalian gay rights group.

Anglican church teaching, reiterated in a series of meetings since 1998, states that sex is reserved for married heterosexual couples.

The Episcopal Church directly challenged that teaching in 2003 by consecrating V. Gene Robinson, a gay man living with his partner, as bishop of New Hampshire. The church’s bishops have also allowed priests to bless gay unions.

In response, more than a third of the other Anglican churches around the world – by some counts more than half – have curtailed their interaction with the Episcopal Church. The church has also faced an internal rebellion from nearly one-tenth of its dioceses, which have appealed to the Anglican Communion to free them from oversight by the presiding Episcopal bishop, Jefferts Schori. Several dozen more parishes have aligned themselves with bishops outside the United States whose churches are more conservative theologically.

At a late-night news conference in Dar es Salaam, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, the denomination’s spiritual leader, said the group hammered out “an interim solution that certainly falls very short of resolving all the disputes.”

Tensions ran so high at the meeting that church officials abandoned the traditional group photo of the leaders on Sunday. Even church services were a tense affair as seven conservative archbishops declined Holy Communion rather than celebrate the Eucharist with Jefferts Schori.

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