Page last updated at 08:06 GMT, Monday, 26 February 2007

Church seeks unity on gay rights

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

When the Synod of the Church of England meets this week the shadow of another meeting thousands of miles away on the shores of the Indian Ocean will be hanging over it.

Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams will try to prevent a split in the Church over gay rights

That is because the same chill wind of division that preoccupied the archbishops in Tanzania will be blowing through Church House in Westminster.

At last week's gathering, the leaders of the world's 38 independent Anglican churches achieved what had seemed an

improbable consensus.

The Communion has been in crisis since the liberal American branch of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church, ordained an openly gay bishop in 2003.

Before the archbishops gathered in Dar es Salaam, it seemed likely that the leaders of conservative Anglican churches would set up some sort of alternative Communion to cater for the dozens of traditionalist congregations that have broken away from the Episcopal Church.

That posed the Communion with a dire threat.

Even if this new organisation had been linked to other Anglican churches, it would have provided disgruntled traditionalists in every other national church with a new model of Anglicanism - and many would have eventually gravitated towards it.

But, after a tense few days in the African sun, the archbishops managed to agree a plan for a parallel church organisation in America of their own devising, safely within both the Episcopal Church and the Communion.

Buying time

It is not a completely done deal. Liberal Americans might reject this unprecedented interference in their territory.

They might also baulk at the demand by the rest of the Communion for an unequivocal commitment not to ordain any more gay bishops or to bless same-sex relationships in church services.

But valuable time was bought and the agreement has been hailed an achievement, not least for Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, on whose personal powers of persuasion it seemed largely to depend.

The same dispute threatens to pit English congregations against each other too
Robert Pigott

Does that mean that the dispute has been defused for the other 38 Anglican churches, including the Church of England, meeting in Westminster this week?

By no means. The same dispute threatens to pit English congregations against each other too.

The Church, which has weathered deep differences over fundamental issues such as whether to ordain women, is vulnerable to a split over homosexuality.

That is partly because it divides the Church down its oldest fault-line - between its traditionalist Protestant wing with its emphasis on a relatively literal interpretation of the Bible on one side, and on the other, the more progressive Catholic wing, which places more stress on interpreting the spirit of biblical teaching, especially on social justice.

'Contrary to scripture'

The synod discussion will take place in two separate debates on Wednesday.

The first seeks an acknowledgment that you can have a homosexual orientation and be a perfectly good Christian.

It also suggests that the progressive attitude towards homosexuality comes from "honest and legitimate" reading of the Bible.

They seem modest enough requests, but traditionalists suspect they are intended to pave the way for a change in official Church policy that active homosexuality is "contrary to scripture".

A second motion attacks what traditionalists claim was the Church's supine response to civil partnerships - especially its failure to declare them inconsistent with Christian teaching, and to do more to prevent gay clergy participating in such partnerships.

In such ways the battle over sexuality is likely to continue to be played out in the Church.

Interpreting the Bible

Traditionalists say it's a question of authority - is the Bible the ultimate guide to how to behave or not?

Liberals say the Bible is supreme, but it's not a telephone directory, with specific instructions as to how to behave on any situation you look up.

Traditionalists say the Communion becomes meaningless as a coherent Christian body if its constituent parts differ on matters of fundamental importance.

Liberals say it has to be fluid enough to allow parts of it that are so minded to progress, just as they have on divorce and the ordination of women priests.

The chances of a long-term promise to toe the traditionalist line on sexuality seem remote
Robert Pigott

The Synod will open with an address by Dr Williams, in which he is expected to report the Tanzania agreement.

For all his success in buying time to deal with the crisis, he will know how difficult it will be for the Episcopal Church to agree to the deal.

Even if it does, the chances of a long-term promise to toe the traditionalist line on sexuality seem remote.

It is not only traditionalist Africans who could provide an alternative model of Anglicanism for disaffected English congregations.

Dr Williams will probably want to warn the Church that it's not out of the woods yet.

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