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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 September, 2003, 00:27 GMT 01:27 UK
Evangelicals warm up in gay row

By Robert Pigott
BBC religious affairs correspondent at the National Evangelical Anglicans Congress in Blackpool

The 2,000 people gathered in a blustery, drizzly Blackpool represent the biggest gathering of evangelical Anglicans for 15 years.

And they could barely have chosen a more important moment in the history of their church for their meeting.

The Church of England is poised on the brink of a decision about how to deal with sexuality that could change it irrevocably.

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams was received warmly at the congress
In the last few months a gay bishop, Gene Robinson, has been elected in the US, and a Canadian diocese has begun to carry out formal church blessings for homosexual couples.

For the traditionalists, who make up by far the majority in Blackpool, such developments represent a betrayal of the Bible's teaching.

They believe the Bible clearly condemns homosexual acts as sinful.

Some conservative evangelicals refused even to come to Blackpool, because the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was opening the event.

Dr Williams has admitted ordaining a man he knew to be gay.

The general secretary of the Church Society, the Reverend David Phillips, was among those who boycotted it.

'Monster among you'

He accused Dr Williams of "sending the wrong messages about homosexuality".

Nevertheless, Dr Williams got a warm welcome, and when he acknowledged his unpopularity in the words of Psalm 71, "I am come as a monster among you", he was applauded warmly.

Gene Robinson
Gene Robinson's election as bishop of New Hampshire has caused uproar
Dr Williams concentrated on the core beliefs of Christianity shared by all Anglicans, but he avoided the issue that has so united evangelicals, who have grown to become the largest group in the Church of England.

"Evangelicals are pretty well united in their beliefs that homosexual practice is sinful," said Dr Paul Gardner, the chairman of the National Evangelical Anglican Congress.

"We believe God has ordained it that way. It's an issue that takes us back to the Bible."

Homosexuality appears only briefly on the agenda for the congress.

The organisers say the real issue is faithfulness to the Bible.

But sexuality will dominate conversation outside the main meeting hall.

That is largely because of the crisis caused by the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

World leaders

Evangelical traditionalists managed - together with a network of like-minded conservatives throughout the worldwide Anglican church - to force the resignation of the British gay bishop Canon Jeffrey John, from his post as Bishop Elect of Reading in July.

But they could not stop gay blessings in Vancouver, or Canon Robinson's appointment.

Now many want robust action against the American Anglican church, or at least measures to support traditionalists in North America.

The chance for that action will come in just a few weeks time.

On 15 and 16 October, leaders of the worldwide Anglican church will meet in Lambeth to discuss the crisis caused by Gene Robinson's election.

Some conservatives, and Anglican churches of the developing world, say they can no longer live in the same organisation as the American church.

The scene has been set for a battle for the soul of the worldwide church.

The meeting in Blackpool will provide the powerful evangelicals of the Church of England the chance to discuss where to bring their own influence to bear in deciding the outcome.

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