Less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages, a firm push-back within Anglican Church's international leadership has formally put North America in its bad books for breaking with marriage tradition.

Church officials insist the decision to temporarily suspend the U.S. Episcopal Church, and effectively put Canada's Anglican Church on notice, was among the best of several worst-case scenarios they feared from the gathering of global Anglican leaders, which ends today in Canterbury, England.

The directive does, after all, simply acknowledge the fact that the more liberal North American Anglican churches and the more traditionalist ones, largely in Africa and Asia, have had an uneasy relationship over sexuality — "to use a marriage analogy, living practically separate lives," said one official.

Yet, with one exception, African church leaders, some of whom have painted North American churches as unorthodox, even heretics, refrained this week from a threatened walkout over the controversy.

Still, the language of the statement from the global leaders, leaked a day early, indicates a headstrong resolve to oppose same-sex marriages in the long term.

It also suggests that the so-called North-South schism over the matter is actually deepening, and may well be irreparable.

A 'deep pain'

The statement said the move by the U.S. branch to change the definition of marriage caused "deep pain," and a "deeper mistrust between us" that represents "a fundamental departure from the faith."

In an apparent reference to Canada, it added that "possible developments in other provinces could further exacerbate this situation."

The Anglican Church of Canada currently allows blessings for same-sex unions, and its leaders are to vote on whether to allow same-sex marriages when they meet in Toronto in July.

Should they take that step, it could mean a suspension for Canada too.

"The implied message is: If you move in that direction, you too will be required to limit your involvement in the life of the worldwide Anglican Communion," one church insider told CBC News.

The gathering of 38 Anglican primates — representing some 80 million people worldwide — ultimately does not have the power to expel any member churches.

But a majority at the meeting supported upholding marriage as "between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union," said their statement.

A long history

The rift in the Anglican body over sexuality started when the U.S. Episcopal Church (the Anglican church in the U.S.) ordained its first openly gay bishop in 2003.

It came to a head with the U.S. church's decision to redefine marriage last July as that of a "couple," instead of a man and a woman.

The primates, meeting this week, agreed to impose a three-year suspension on the U.S. Episcopal Church from global decision-making on core issues, and on representing the church on interfaith bodies or internal committees.

Not a penalty, but a "consequence," said a Church of England official.

"What it means therefore is they have a limited role in the governance of the Anglican communion," said the official. "But nowhere does it say they've been expelled from the communion itself."

From Vancouver, the Very Reverend Peter Elliott, speaking only for himself, said he "deeply regretted" the decision to distance the U.S. Episcopal Church.

Rev. Peter Elliott

Rev. Peter Elliott, dean of the Diocese of New Westminster and rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver. (Christ Church Cathedral website)

"The loss of their voice at international meetings diminishes our common life," he wrote in an email.

Leading the charge against North America in the closed-door meeting was Gafcon, a grouping of mostly African and Asian churches.

The group said Canada, too, should have been penalized.

"There is much that causes us concern, especially the failure to recognize the fact that the Anglican Church of Canada has also rejected the collegial mind of the communion by unilaterally permitting the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of those in active homosexual relationships," said the statement.

"We fear that other provinces will do the same."

In contrast, Canada's third largest church believes that blessing of committed relationships/marriages of same-sex couples is "a matter of doctrine, but it is not core doctrine: there is room for disagreement," says Elliott.

"We are a church in a country where gay rights are protected by law," he explained. "The church in a society like that needs to respect the values that have emerged after many years of struggle."

There is still a debate on marriage within the church, but it long ago affirmed "the civil rights of the homosexual community," he added.

"In other countries, there has not been this affirmation. In many countries on the Asian and African continent, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment, in some cases by execution. Theirs is a very different context."

British churches

Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin in the Fields church in London, agrees that context is important.

His church at Trafalgar Square has many gay members in the congregation, and the debate on same-sex marriage or blessings is still ongoing in the English church.

In some places in Africa, he said, especially in places where Islam is prevalent, a liberal stance on sexuality could actually be "a life and death issue, literally… people's lives would be in danger," he said.

Further, the differences over human sexuality are interwoven with longstanding differences on deeper matters.

"When the Anglican communion was formed around the 19th century it was made up of 100 or 200 bishops from around the world, and they had pretty much all gone to school together," he said in an interview.

"Now you take a picture of the Anglican primates and it's a very different picture. I think that's a very good thing.

"But of course it makes communication, understanding, cultural difference significantly different."

While England is the Anglican heartland, a quarter of worldwide Anglicans are now Nigerians.

"Church membership in places like North America and Europe continue to decline, while it seems to grow exponentially in Africa, as Christianity's 'centre of gravity' steadily moves south," said a church insider.

"This tension is also tied up with Anglicanism's legacy of colonialism, as the younger churches planted by missionaries in the United Kingdom and North America come into their own."

It is a shift that might someday cause a rupture. Though not today, its leaders insist.