Page last updated at 03:02 GMT, Wednesday, 23 July 2008 04:02 UK

Anglicans accused of 'demonising'

By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent

Anglican bishops at Canterbury Cathedral
Bishops are meeting at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury

A group set up to allow the Anglican Communion to contain its divisions about homosexuality has reported a bleak assessment of progress.

The report was made to bishops at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, which is held every 10 years.

The openly gay bishop Gene Robinson was elected by the liberal Episcopal Church in the US five years ago.

These years have been marked, says the group, by "fear-mongering, deliberate distortion and demonising".

Gene Robinson's ordination prompted a crisis as the Communion's traditionalist majority began a campaign to expel the Episcopal Church.

It also produced the Windsor Process, the Communion's attempt to heal the rift. On Tuesday the leader of the Windsor Continuation Group delivered his starkly pessimistic "observations".

Bishop Clive Handford said the Communion remained at an impasse.

Through modern technology there has been active fear-mongering, deliberate distortion and demonising. Politicisation has overtaken Christian discernment
Bishop Clive Handford

Positions and arguments were becoming more extreme, and relationships between traditionalist and progressive Anglicans continued to deteriorate.

Bishop Handford - the former leader of the Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East - said promises had been made but not honoured.

Gene Robinson's ordination galvanised an international alliance of traditionalists to combat what they see as a liberal campaign to change the character and beliefs of Anglicanism.

The alliance was formed even earlier, playing a critical role in cutting short the tenure as Bishop of Reading of Jeffrey John.

The group was a creature of the internet age, linking conservative Africans with traditionalist dissidents in the American Church and evangelicals in the UK.

Rival conferences

Now all sides in the Communion's central dispute are linked in international "cyber networks". Bishop Handford said it had exacerbated already fractious relationships.

"Through modern technology there has been active fear-mongering, deliberate distortion and demonising", he said. "Politicisation has overtaken Christian discernment."

Bishop Handford aimed a particular broadside at the traditionalists who held a rival conference in Jerusalem last month and set up an alliance which explicitly bypassed the Lambeth Conference, and said it no longer regarded good relations with the Archbishop of Canterbury as important in defining an Anglican.

He said "suspicions have been raised about the purpose, timing and outcomes of the Global Anglican Future Conference", adding that the boycott by 230 of its participants had "further damaged trust".

But Bishop Handford also acknowledged that there was now distrust of the ability of the "instruments of communion" - including the Lambeth Conference and the Archbishop of Canterbury - to respond to the crisis.

Once, perhaps even as recently as the ill-fated selection of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, and the blessing of same-sex relationships in Anglican churches in Vancouver, the dispute seemed localised.

Global debate

However modern technology and a sense of this debate's massive implications for the future of Anglicanism have conspired to make it seem almost universal.

Polarisation, and the entrenching of attitudes, has spread far beyond North America to infect many of the world's 38 autonomous churches.

As Bishop Handford put it: "There has been a development from individual members leaving congregations, to congregations leaving parishes and dioceses, to dioceses seeking to leave provinces (Churches)".

The communion may be in what Bishop Handford referred to as turmoil, but formal discussion of the Windsor process will have to wait until almost the end of the conference.

Even then it will be limited to the 40-strong groups into which the bishops have been divided, and there will be no formal resolution.

It seems that a once-in-a-decade opportunity to make real progress in healing the rift is being lost because the bishops do not trust themselves not to make it even worse.

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