Page last updated at 15:24 GMT, Saturday, 28 June 2008 16:24 UK

Anglican rift is about more than sex

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News, Jerusalem

Word has got about that traditionalist Anglicans have something against gay people - and that is what is driving the Communion towards disintegration.

Of course some of them might not like homosexual people, but, as they never tire of pointing out, that is not what this historic rift is about.

Church of Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
Three religions have struck a delicate balance in Jerusalem's Old City

In reality, the dispute centres on how strictly Anglicans should interpret the Bible, and whether, for example, it should be read as ruling out active homosexuality as a sin.

Homosexuality is simply the presenting issue - the human behaviour that exposes radically different approaches to the Bible, and helps to make this such a fundamental dispute.

However, the traditionalist bishops meeting in Jerusalem to plan their next move in this crisis claim that embracing active homosexuality is only a part of the "liberal agenda".

They still want the American Church expelled for ordaining an openly gay bishop in 2003.

But now there are other issues, among them their suspicion that liberal Anglicans are quietly backing away from their "calling" to evangelise other faiths.

Left or right?

I met the chairman of the traditionalist Reform group in the Church of England, Rev Rod Thomas, inside the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Just inside the gate you are faced with a choice: the Christian Quarter to the right and the Muslim Quarter on the left.

We headed left, down into a warren of narrow streets, their walls hung with the goods on sale in the shops here. We found mosques and churches crowded cheek by jowl into this most crowded quarter of Jerusalem.

Over the centuries three religions have achieved a delicate balance here.


The BBC's Robert Pigott gives a tour of Jerusalem

But Rod Thomas said the need to maintain the sometimes fragile relationship between religions was being used by some Anglicans as an excuse not to spread the faith to others.

"We are very concerned indeed about developments in the Episcopal Church in America over the approach to mission," he said.

"Simply because the Presiding Bishop [Katherine Jefferts-Schori] has seemed to suggest that Jesus Christ isn't the only way of salvation, but it is just one of several viable ways. And there is nothing in the Bible that supports that view," he said.

"I know it sounds good to the pluralistic West, but if it remains untrue, and if it's not what the Bible teaches, then I don't really see what it's got to do with Anglicanism."

Competition for converts

It was the dispute over who is truly Anglican, and a wish to claim ownership of the original values of the Bible, that brought the Anglican traditionalists to Jerusalem.

But the local Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, pleaded - unsuccessfully - with them not to come.

Sheikh Aziz
God is beautiful, God is love, God is compassion, so why use bad language to talk about God or explain about the message?
Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari

He was anxiously aware that most of the visitors were from churches in the centre of Africa, where relations with Muslims are uneasy, or even hostile.

"We are struggling to work for peace and reconciliation in this troubled land, especially in Jerusalem," says Bishop Suheil.

"And we are keen to keep the balance among other faiths, because we are working very close with Judaism and Islam. This is part of our mission and witness in Islam."

But many of the traditionalist African Anglicans meeting in Jerusalem are already in open competition with Muslims to win converts.

They say Muslims in Africa respect their duty to evangelise.

Common values

But Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, the descendant of a long line of Muslim scholars who lives in a rambling roof-top house in the heart of the Old City, says evangelism is a duty best carried out with great humility.

"I prefer the modest one, the one who's more gentle with (how they) speak. God is beautiful, God is love, God is compassion, so why use bad language to talk about God or explain about the message? If you marry Muslims, you are in the wrong, you are in doom... that's not the way to tell people about other religions."

There are also liberal Anglicans who share Sheikh Bukhari's focus on the fundamental religious values - love, equality and forgiveness for example - common to other religions.

But traditionalists claim that this masks a more serious failure to uphold the essence of Christianity.

People praying in Church of Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is seen as the site of Jesus's crucifixion

Rod Thomas told me liberal Anglicans risked denying Muslims the opportunity to hear what is to him a fundamental truth.

"Jesus Christ said 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father, but by me,'" he says.

"Yes, we want to proclaim the uniqueness and lordship of Christ over all the world, but we need to do that, yes, with confidence, but also with great sensitivity. So that people hear the message and don't immediately discount it as something alien to their cultures."

My walk through the Old City of Jerusalem ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally regarded as the site of Jesus's crucifixion.

It is also famously a building over which various churches have squabbled so much that a Muslim has to hold the key.

It seems that even if Christianity and Islam are to remain rivals, the rivalry within Christianity will prove as difficult to resolve.

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