Episcopal church begins meeting, showdown on gays

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NEW ORLEANS, Sep 21 (Reuters) US Episcopal bishops began a conference expected to be dominated by a schism over gay clergy and same-sex unions that threatens to split the global Anglican church.

Church leaders were tight-lipped about their first talks on the issue with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, leader of the 77 million-member Worldwide Anglican Communion, who took time out to tour a neighborhood devastated two years ago by Hurricane Katrina.

He was to give a homily yesterday evening that will be closely watched for his thoughts on the gay issues.

The public focus will be on how the US House of Bishops deals with a ''request'' by bishops meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, earlier this year that the US church renounce by Sept. 30 the blessing of same-sex marriages and make it clear it will not allow more non-celibate gays to become bishops.

The US church, which has 2.4 million members, in 2003 consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop known to be in an openly gay relationship in more than four centuries of church history.

John Rabb, bishop of the diocese of Maryland, told reporters that Thursday's meetings touched on many subjects, not just the request and deadline issued in Africa.

''Dar es Salaam ... was not the essence of all of our conversation. It was certainly part of the conversation,'' he said in a news conference.

Even though the controversy over gay issues has been a heated one for Episcopals, he said the talks in New Orleans were ''respectful.'' Williams took a break from his meetings to bless a new parish, the Church of All Souls, which is being opened in an abandoned Walgreen's store in New Orleans' mostly black Lower Ninth Ward.

''I feel very, very proud that our church is here and doing something in this area where so much is needed,'' the archbishop said under high blue skies that contrasted sharply with memories of the storm that struck in August 2005.

Recalling the Biblical story of the rainbow that appeared after the great flood, he said, ''The rainbow is a sign of promise ... that God's not going away. Here, after the terrible events of two years ago, God hasn't gone away and God's people haven't gone away.'' ''I wish you all every blessing as this community grows.'' REUTERS JK BST0908

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