Appointments of several gay men as church leaders are testing Anglican tolerance almost to breaking point.
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online
The Church of England is talking itself into a vicious crisis as it tries yet again to grapple with sexuality. Its problem over whether homosexual Christians can be members of the clergy has erupted with renewed force.
Rowan Williams hopes the church will ease its views on the issue
Some Anglicans believe the newly-enthroned archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, should resign. The row is part of a wider split developing within the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The English aspect of the crisis stems from the decision of the bishop of Oxford, the Right Rev Richard Harries, to choose an openly gay man, Canon Jeffrey John, as suffragan [assistant] bishop of Reading.
Almost simultaneously, US Anglicans (known there as Episcopalians) in the diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson as their bishop - the country's first acknowledged gay man to hold the office.
Two archbishops, from Nigeria and the Caribbean, say the appointments threaten the church's unity, and want them rescinded. The Nigerian province is the largest single church in the 70 million-strong Anglican Communion.
Word from on high?
The opponents of Jeffrey John and Gene Robinson base their argument on the Bible, which they say condemns homosexuality unequivocally.
Supporters of the two men say Christians' interpretation of many Biblical teachings has changed in the past 2,000 years. The church no longer condones slavery, for example, or automatically assigns women an inferior status.
A split is inevitable, both within the church of England and the whole communion
The Church of England is at best inconsistent, teaching that ordinary parishioners can be active homosexuals but that gay or lesbian clergy must have no sexual relationship. The 1998 Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops took essentially the same line.
Some Anglicans believe there is little chance this time of avoiding a permanent split, despite the church's legendary and insouciant ability to hold several apparently incompatible views.
The Rev David Phillips is general secretary of the UK's Church Society, which represents evangelical Anglicans - those who emphasise the primacy of the Bible.
He told BBC News Online: "We think a split is inevitable, both within the church of England and the whole communion. We're surprised at Jeffrey John's appointment - we wouldn't have expected it so soon, and it shows how things are changing under Rowan Williams.
A gay wedding in Canada also sent shockwaves through the church
"People like Canon John are sincere, and both sides are convinced they're right, so I can't see any way forward. I don't think the Anglican fudge can work in the long term.
"When Dr Williams' appointment to Canterbury was announced, we asked him not to accept it. We stand by that: we'd like him to step down. We think his own private views will make it impossible for him to hold the church together."
But the Rev Richard Kirker, of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, sees things differently. He told BBC News Online: "If there isn't sufficient will for people to work together, it's very hard to force them to do so.
"But I don't think these apocalyptic fears have to be fulfilled. The people who threaten division always wildly exaggerate their ability to bring it about. We're certainly not hoping for a split."
For many in Europe and North America, sexuality is no more a matter of choice or morals than anything else we are born with, like hair colour or facial features.
The insistence of some Christians on understanding it in the light of 2,000-year-old scriptures strikes them as puzzling and largely irrelevant.