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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February 2005, 11:03 GMT
Analysis: Anglican schism nears reality
By Alex Kirby
BBC News, Newry, Northern Ireland

Bishop Gene Robinson
Gene Robinson's election as bishop has led the church to a crisis
The threatened split between conservative and liberal Anglicans over homosexuality is now almost complete.

The decision by Anglican leaders to ask North American Churches to withdraw from a key body for three years appears to buy time to resolve the divide.

However, it is widely seen as a victory for the traditionalists.

The primates - senior bishops - who head the Anglican communion's separate churches were scheduled to brief journalists on their talks about the place of gay and lesbian Christians.

The primates have handed the North Americans a pearl-handled revolver

But a late-evening communique announced they had agreed a day early to ask the US Episcopal Church and Canadian Church to bow out for the time being.

In a key passage, the communique says: "We request that the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council for the period leading up to the next Lambeth Conference" [the 10-yearly meeting of all Anglican bishops, due next in 2008].

Chance to talk

The ACC is a liaison body, with members drawn from each province or member church. To step down would mean a church was no longer a full member of the Anglican family.

One observer said: "The primates have handed the North Americans a pearl-handled revolver."

A leading traditionalist, the Most Reverend Peter Akinola, primate of the Nigerian Church, was reported to have held a celebratory dinner as the communique was being finalised.

Many primates have been deeply alarmed that the standard of Christian teaching on matters of human sexuality.... has been seriously undermined by the recent developments in North America
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The 38 primates (three are missing this time, for personal reasons) meet regularly.

The meeting in Newry, Northern Ireland, had been meant as a chance to talk about a range of issues, including HIV/Aids and poverty, and it did spend some time doing so.

But most of it was taken up with debating the Windsor report, set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to try to resolve the crisis over homosexuality in the Church.

What brought that simmering row to a head was the decision by US Anglicans to appoint an openly gay priest, Gene Robinson, as a bishop, and the Canadian agreement to bless same-sex unions.

The Windsor report contained a warning to the 77 million members of the worldwide Anglican communion.

It said: "There remains a very real danger that we will not choose to walk together.

"Should the call to halt and find ways of continuing in our present communion not be heeded, then we shall have to begin to learn to walk apart."

Unity buckling

Preserving the Church's unity has traditionally been a key concern of successive archbishops of Canterbury, the "first among equals" who preside over the communion as leaders of the Church of England.

But Dr Williams may be the archbishop who has to accept that the circle can no longer be squared.

Anglicans are so deeply and bitterly divided over homosexuality that even their famously broad church may now buckle under the strain of maintaining the pretence of unity.

The conservative Anglicans say simply that the Bible requires gay and lesbian Christians to repent, and to have no sex life.

The liberals say the church must interpret the Bible in the light of modern knowledge, accepting that people are born with their sexuality and should not deny it.

Out of those polar opposites, even Solomon himself would find it hard to forge a united church.

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