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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 February, 2004, 20:17 GMT
Synod revisits familiar divides

By Robert Pigott
BBC religious affairs correspondent

With an agenda dominated by sex and money, the Church of England Synod seemed bound to be tense.

Canon Jeffrey John
Canon Jeffrey John was persuaded to step down
The Synod offered the opportunity to again focus on the issue of homosexuality, following the furious row caused by the short-lived appointment of the gay cleric Jeffrey John last year.

Conservative Anglicans - who created a powerful network of support in the 70 million strong worldwide Church - were blamed for forcing Canon John to step down.

That alienated liberals in the Church who since then seem inclined to fight over the Church's direction.

Last November traditionalists were angered when the American Anglican Church ordained Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

Bishop Robinson, a father of two, lives with his male partner.

The Synod debate focused on a discussion document explaining the arguments surrounding the Church's attitude to homosexuality.

But views were polarised by six months of division over the issue and so passions were likely to be inflamed.

Both liberals and traditionalists in the Church regard homosexuality as fundamental to the whole future direction of the Church, and believe Anglicanism is at a watershed.

That is because it touches on how far it is permissible to re-interpret the Bible in line with modern experience.

But the report stayed resolutely on the fence.

I am not a heterosexual person who has gone astray - I am a gay Christian
Gay priest Paul Collier

It accepted Christian tradition was dynamic and open to change, but insisted it was not like a Shakespeare play, able to be performed in different ways.

The Church of England's official policy is that active homosexuality is incompatible with the Bible, and that gay people - especially priests - should remain celibate.

'Cruel'

Among impassioned speeches at the Synod, one gay priest, Paul Collier, denounced the call to abstinence as "sterile and hopeless".

He said the document did not treat homosexual people as individuals.

"I am not a heterosexual person who has gone astray", he said.

"I am a gay Christian."

Sister Rosemary of the Community of the Holy Name called for repentance of the "cruel way" it treated homosexuals.

"The idea of forced celibacy is as abhorrent as the idea of forced marriage."

Other speakers said Church policy was damaging its ability to engage with society as a whole.

But conservatives such as The Rev David Banting of the traditionalist group Reform say the Church's values and ethics would be meaningless if changed to suit prevailing views.

For them the Bible as traditionally interpreted is the supreme guide.

"It's like playing Scrabble, and saying that the dictionary is an important authority for the way the game is played, but never actually using it," he said.

Another speaker suggested both groups must learn to live together - but will that be possible?

Many conservatives are warning they may set up an alternative Church with a centre far from Canterbury if the Church of England does not follow them in breaking off relations with the American Church over its gay bishop.

Given the bitter divisions that surfaced last summer over Jeffrey John, the Church of England might not survive such a decision intact.

Power struggle

If sex is one long term problem for the Church, money is never far behind.

A dispute over diverting 9m to an initiative designed to attract uncommitted outsiders into the Church has highlighted a simmering power struggle at the centre of the Church's structures.

The recommendation was made by a spending review team of the Archbishops' Council, an influential executive body composed of people appointed from across the Church.

Church of England General Synod
The document on homosexuality drew few firm conclusions

It said 5m of the money should be diverted from the work of bishops.

This has alienated another powerful group in the Church, the House of Bishops.

The Bishop of St Albans, Christopher Herbert, said the spending review team should withdraw the report.

Referring to the jaw-bone with which Cain is depicted in medieval imagery beating his brother Abel, he likened the report to "the jawbone of ass", saying it was "brutal because it joins some others in the Church of England as treating bishops as leaders with disdain".

But the Synod did approve a strategy exploring radical new forms of worship to widen its appeal, especially to young people.

These are times of flux for the Church of England, the worldwide Church, and some think even for Anglicanism itself.


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