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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Episcopal bishops seeking ways to mend the rift over homosexuality that has strained relations between the American denomination and its sister churches worldwide plan to gather for a closed-door strategy session next week in Utah.
U.S. bishops are scheduled to spend Wednesday and Thursday in Salt Lake City, discussing their response to recommendations from an emergency panel of Anglican leaders on how the loose, global association of churches called the Anglican Communion can remain unified.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of Anglicanism.
The gathering is the first of several meetings in which Episcopalians will discuss the study, called the Windsor Report, which chastised the U.S. church for consecrating its first openly gay bishop without fully consulting overseas Anglican leaders who opposed his election.
New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who lives with his longtime male partner, is expected to attend the meeting. Conservative American bishops who had boycotted previous meetings with him plan to attend this gathering as well.
"I believe this is a pivotal meeting," said Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for conservative Anglicans, who have formed a network of dissenting dioceses and congregations. "I believe the (conservative) bishops will push for real decision and action."
It is unlikely that the bishops will take dramatic steps to address global tensions next week, ahead of a critical gathering of Anglican leaders next month in Northern Ireland.
The task for American bishops is made more difficult by the fact that many Episcopalians -- and even members of the emergency panel -- disagree over what the Windsor Report has asked of them.
Generally, the report sought apologies from Episcopal bishops who consecrated Robinson and suggested a moratorium on electing bishops who are in same-sex relationships.
The report also discouraged dioceses from authorizing blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples. Some Episcopalians argue the report only asked bishops to refrain from developing official prayers for such ceremonies, while others contend the study recommended an outright moratorium on same-sex union ceremonies.
The report also criticized conservative bishops who have crossed boundaries, unauthorized, to lead North American parishes that cannot accept the authority of their liberal bishops.
Utah bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish declined to comment before next week's meeting, but is on record supporting Robinson and the blessing of same-sex unions. Last year, Irish called for Utah churches to create formal rites for such unions.
The 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church is a small but important part of the 77 million-member communion.
The Rev. Dan Webster, spokesman for the Utah diocese, said he is encouraged by the return of the conservative bishops.
"Their voices will be heard at the table and it will be much better," Webster said. "I suspect there will be frank and earnest discussion and I believe there will be direct conversations between bishops."
Still, it is possible that no progress will be made on divisions within the church, Webster said. The House of Bishops typically issues statements following meetings.
"They could come in and leave just as divided as when they arrived," Webster said.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)