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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 July, 2003, 03:01 GMT 04:01 UK
Where does Anglican balance of power lie?

By Robert Pigott
BBC religious affairs correspondent

When the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams decided Jeffrey John must resign as Bishop-elect of Reading, he cited the need to preserve ties with the world-wide Anglican Church.

The decision came after Nigeria threatened to split from the Church of England if Canon John's ordination went ahead in October.

Canon Jeffrey John
Canon Jeffrey John decided not to take up the post of bishop
So has the Anglican Community become a democracy, in which the populous countries of the developing world now have the decisive voice?

Jeffrey John - who's admitted having a long-term homosexual relationship, albeit one that's now celibate - faced intense pressure from traditionalists in the Church of England to step down.

But it seems to have been the influence of conservative Anglicans overseas that led to him signing a letter of resignation at Lambeth Palace last weekend.

Jeffrey John's friends say he went to see Rowan Williams still intent on taking up his job in Reading. But six hours later he had stepped down.

Dr Williams, the leader of the world-wide Church, felt he could not ignore the perspective of the Anglican Communion as a whole, and Jeffrey John was persuaded to relinquish his post.

In a statement the next day Dr Williams said "the estrangement of churches in developing countries from their cherished ties with Britain is in no-one's interests.

"It would impoverish us as a Church in every way".

Tables turned

These are Christians with conservative social values and a strict interpretation of the bible.

They believe the bible clearly outlaws homosexuality, where liberal Anglicans prefer to re-interpret it in the light of contemporary experience.

Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Williams praised the priest for his "dignity"
But it wasn't so long ago that the Church of England was very much in charge of international Anglicanism.

It sent out senior clerics to lead Anglicans in countries of the Empire and later the Commonwealth. Desmond Tutu was the twelfth Archbishop of Cape Town, but only the first native-born South African.

The tables have rapidly turned with the secularisation of the West.

A hundred years ago, three quarters of Anglicans were white and European or North American; now two-thirds worship in developing countries.

It's not the first time senior African churchmen have voiced frustration: they were unhappy about how little say they had in selecting the Archbishop of Canterbury, and are starting to demand a representation that reflects their rapidly increasing numbers.

The Bishop of Botswana, Theophilus Naledi, says Anglicans there no longer look to England to settle issues such as the ordination of women.

Botswana remains firmly opposed to women priests. Bishop Naledi warns that the very integrity of the Anglican Communion could be at risk if members of the church in the developing world are ignored.

Archbishop Peter Akinola, whose 18 million strong Church in Nigeria contains more Anglicans than in England, America and Canada put together, threatened to split from the Church of England if Canon John were ordained.

It seemed no empty threat - the Nigerian Church has already severed ties with the diocese of Vancouver over its blessing of gay relationships.

Faced with the prospect of the international Church disintegrating, Rowan Williams decided Jeffrey John had to go.

But it may only be a temporary respite. This summer the Anglican Church in America could make the blessing of homosexual partnerships its official policy, and confirm the blessing of its own openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

By sacrificing Jeffrey John, Rowan Williams has averted an immediate crisis in the Church of England, but the world-wide Church could still end up breaking up around him.

The BBC's Robert Pigott
"The crisis in the Church may merely have been postponed"

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