NEW YORK (AP) — Anglican leaders on Thursday temporarily restricted the role of the U.S. Episcopal Church in their global fellowship as a sanction over the church's acceptance of gay marriage.
Episcopalians have been barred for three years from any policy-setting positions in the Anglican Communion while a task force is formed that will try to reconcile conflicting views over sexuality in the 85 million-member family of churches. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the United States.
The announcement came near the end of a weeklong meeting in Britain, called by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, to heal rifts over same-sex relationships and keep the Anglican Communion from splitting apart.
Welby, the Anglican spiritual leader, has set a news conference Friday to explain the leaders' decision.
Anglicans, whose roots are in the missionary work of the Church of England, are the third-largest grouping of Christians in the world, behind Roman Catholics and the Orthodox.
There was no immediate comment from the New York-based Episcopal Church, whose leader, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, has been attending the meeting.
While the U.S. Episcopal Church is alone among Anglican provinces in approving gay marriage, other Anglican national churches, in Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand and Scotland, have taken steps toward accepting same-sex relationships. The top body of the Anglican Church of Canada is scheduled to vote in July on a proposal that would authorize gay marriage
Liberal Episcopalians questioned the leaders' authority to impose any such penalty. The Global Anglican Future Conference, which represents theologically conservative Anglican leaders, had sought sanctions against the American church, and some said they would walk out of this week's meeting unless some penalty was applied.
In a statement Thursday, the conference known as GAFCON said their leaders were pleased by the outcome of the meeting, but "this action must not be seen as an end, but as a beginning."
The fellowship has been fracturing for decades over gay relationships, women's ordination and other issues. In 2003, the Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire. Last year, the top U.S. Episcopal legislative body, or General Convention, voted to authorize gay marriages in their churches.
The most vocal protests to the Episcopal embrace of gay rights came from Africa, home to some of the fastest-growing churches in the Anglican communion. Many African countries have criminalized gay relationships.
Theological conservatives from around the world joined together to form the GAFCON as a fellowship within the communion, distancing themselves from the U.S. Episcopal Church and refusing to participate in some Anglican gatherings.
In 2009, Anglican national leaders in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and other church provinces helped create the Anglican Church in North America as a theologically conservative alternative to the U.S. Episcopal Church.
The press office for the Anglican leaders said the statement released Thursday acknowledged "deep differences" over understanding of marriage and said the majority in the meeting "reaffirm" the teaching that marriage is only the union of a man and a woman.