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Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 08:31 GMT 09:31 UK
Canterbury's daunting problems
Canterbury Cathedral
Pressures on Church are greater than for generations

The hunt for a new archbishop of Canterbury to succeed Dr George Carey is nearing completion.

The new man (women are ineligible) will face a formidable task.

The pressures for the Church of England to split apart are greater than they have been for generations.

Yet outside the Church, increasing numbers of Britons have little interest in the institution or its survival.

The Church managed to avoid splitting 10 years ago when it steeled itself to admit women to the priesthood.

But that was a partial recognition of their equality, because the Church's "parliament", its general synod, did not agree that women could go further up the ladder and become bishops.

Bishop in profile
Women cannot become bishops
It will probably agree that soon, and when it does there is a chance that some of the faithful will decide they can no longer remain Anglicans.

A number joined the Catholic, Orthodox and other churches in protest at the acceptance of women priests, and more may do so when it comes to the episcopacy.

But the row over the role of women among the clergy is probably only a muted rehearsal for the explosion to come when the rumbling dispute over gay and lesbian clergy finally proves uncontainable.

The Church of England's teaching essentially sets one standard for ordinary church members and another for the clergy.

It reluctantly tolerates lay homosexuality, even though many Anglicans regard it as at least inferior to heterosexuality, and some condemn it as sinful.

'Different standard'

But the clergy are told something different: while lesbian and gay Anglicans can be priests, they are not allowed to live with their partners, because the Church says it requires "a different standard" from them.

Bishops are supposed not to ordain practising or known gay and lesbian clergy, though some simply do not inquire into the sexual behaviour of those seeking ordination.

If the synod continues to refuse to treat all its homosexual members as the equals of the rest, it can expect vocal protest.

But if it embraces equality, there will probably be a seismic split among more traditional church members.

'Not an irrelevance'

Quite apart from what happens inside the church, the new archbishop will face the possibility of tension deepening between Christians and members of other faiths, both in Britain and abroad.

And he will be hoping to find a way of persuading more Britons that the church of England is not a medieval irrelevance but can serve a useful purpose in society.


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