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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Anglicans torn over gay bishop
By Jane Little
BBC religious affairs correspondent

The division in the Church of England over the appointment of an openly gay bishop appears to be deepening.

Dr Jeffrey John
The row has implications for 80 million faithful

Conservatives met on Friday with the Bishop of Oxford to try to persuade him to reverse a decision to appoint Dr Jeffrey John as an area bishop.

The appointment of a gay man has angered conservatives within the Worldwide Anglican Communion, which is locked in an increasingly hostile battle over the issue of homosexuality.

On Thursday, the Archbishop of Nigeria threatened that his church would break ties with the Diocese of Oxford if the appointment was not rescinded.

Many who read the Bible literally, point to a verse in the Old Testament condemning men having sex with each other as an "abomination"

So is the Anglican Communion about to break up?

It has always seen itself as a broad church which tolerates different views.

But not so tolerant, it seems, when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.

'Biblical silence'

The battle over the appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading is one for the soul of the Anglican Church.

And it is pinned on the interpretation of the Bible.

Liberals point out that Jesus had nothing to say on the issue.

Ultimately for them, the Bible is not God's inerrant word but is coloured by the views and prejudices of the writers.

They often cite the condoning of slavery as an example.


The Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, is a prominent liberal who has often spoken out in favour of a more progressive approach.

He defended his decision to appoint Dr John: "Many believe we are also committed to reading scripture in the light of those many in our society who feel themselves wonderfully blessed, blessed by God through such committed faithful love."

Jeffrey John says he is now a "symbol of hope for an awful lot of people".

He has been with his male partner for 27 years but says that it is now a celibate relationship.

Anglican rules dictate that gay clergy must not express their sexuality.

Lay people are permitted to have monogamous gay relationships.

For some it is a theologically inadequate fudge.

For conservative evangelicals it is absolutely wrong.

Bible readings

Many who read the Bible literally, often point to a verse in the Old Testament condemning men having sex with each other as an "abomination".

They also cite St Paul's writings in the New Testament.

Is the family of Anglicans heading for divorce?

"I cannot see any way you can take what the New Testament says in the light of the broad sweep of scripture that talks about marriage being the only context in which we can enjoy sexual relationships and interpret it any other way," says Anne Atkins, a prominent Anglican commentator.

What happens within the Church of England matters very much to the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

It is the "mother church" of the communion of 38 provinces which represent some 80 million Christians.

Peter Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria - who represents by far the largest church with 17m Anglicans - says it might break away unless this appointment is rescinded:

"There are boundaries and you can't go beyond those boundaries. If you do then it means you have chosen to be outside of our fellowship."

The Nigerian Church has already broken ties with the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster since it saw its first same-sex blessing last month following the approval of its bishop.

Conservatives - who predominate in the African and Asian churches - have also been angered by the recent election of an openly gay bishop in the American Diocese of New Hampshire.


The debate appears to be reaching crisis point.

But the Anglican Communion has faced other crises - in particular the row over the ordination of women as priests.

Some parts of the communion now have women bishops; the Church of England does not. Yet.

But this rift over homosexuality is more bitter and divisive, and it has put the new Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, Dr Rowan Williams, in a very awkward position.

He is known to personally support the gay priests and the blessing of same sex unions, but he is also sensitive to the concerns of the conservatives at home and abroad.

He has said that he will uphold traditional Anglican teaching and has expressed dismay at the recent move in New Westminster.

But can he hold the squabbling churches together?

Diversity or divorce

Some celebrate the fact that the Anglican community airs its differences openly.

A spokesman for the Church of England said: "Families go through troubled times. The important thing is that families discuss the issues, the difficulties they have."

But the Anglican Communion is now very far from the "happy family" the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, described.

In such an overheated atmosphere, many commentators predict that the family of Anglicans is heading for divorce.

Head to head: Gay bishop
20 Jun 03  |  UK
Gay bishop dispute grows
20 Jun 03  |  UK
Bishop fuels gay row in church
18 Jun 03  |  Berkshire

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