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World: Will The Church of England Split Over Homosexual Issues?

  • Jan Jun

(INTRO) --The 77-million worldwide members of the Church of England are facing a schism. The General Synod, which represents the church in 164 countries, ended early last week when no common language could be found between the liberal and traditional parts of the church. They are divided over the ordination of homosexual bishops and the blessing of same-sex marriages, while the debate on the controversial issue of ordaining women bishops has been postponed. The communique issued by the archbishops meeting over the past week in Newry, Northern Ireland, urges the U.S. state that has ordained a gay bishop and a Canadian province that is allowing gay marriages to voluntarily withdraw from the church's Consultative Council until 2008. Observers say, however, that the quarrel will not end and that a schism is inevitable. This is largely because the church has been led by liberal western clergy in recent decades but now more conservative leaders from the world's southern countries are beginning to prevail.

London, 25 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- As the archbishops of the 38 worldwide districts of the Church of England ended their General Synod on 25 February, there was a sense of sadness.

A split in the church now seems inevitable. The divisive issues are the consecration of homosexual bishops and same-sex marriages, and few experts expect them to be resolved. William Rees-Mogg is former editor in chief of London's "The Times" newspaper and a member of Parliament's House of Lords. "I don't know how entrenched the positions are," he said, "but it sounds as though there is a complete split."

Rees-Mogg added that the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, who heads the church, has desperately tried to preserve its unity. He has followed the recommendations of a report on the state of the church published last autumn known as the Windsor Report. "Yet, he can't go on doing this at any cost," Rees-Mogg said.
"The Americans see the appointment of homosexual bishops as being an absolute question of civil liberty. And, the more conservative primates see it as being contrary to Christian teaching. And those grounds in principle are of an absolute kind, and impossible to reconcile."

"I do not really see how one can," Rees-Mogg added. "The Americans see the appointment of homosexual bishops as being an absolute question of civil liberty. And, the more conservative primates see it as being contrary to Christian teaching. And those grounds in principle are of an absolute kind, and impossible to reconcile."

The split brewed over after the ordination of an openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, by the Episcopal Church in America -- the American part of Church of England -- and by the decision of the New Westminster Diocese in Canada to bless homosexual marriages. And there is another divisive issue on the ordination of women, which is set to be debated in July.

The synod's final communique from last week sounds as if it is trying to postpone the final split, the experts say. It states: "We request that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council for the period leading to the next Lambeth Conference." This is the next meeting of Church of England bishops in 2008. Experts, however, do not expect the liberals to repent, because the dispute has brought into the open other disagreements between the two wings of the church.

Digby Anderson is the former director of the church's think tank, The Social Affairs Unit. "Unless something very extraordinary happens," Anderson said, "the liberals will continue down their path, and people who are not liberal in the end will have to seek some form of alternative episcopal oversight. And that will, in the end, leave a very small liberal Church of England."

Anderson adds that the archbishop of Canterbury -- who has been known for his liberal views on many issues -- in the end had to publicly criticize the liberal wing for going too far and damaging the church. He said that the church should "take a firm stand against the erosion of objective morality and biblical truth." Yet, this statement did not have any visible effect, because Anderson says the liberals have run the church in Britain, too, and very badly.

"The interesting thing is the way that these people have effectively been running the Church of England for about 40 years -- the liberals," Anderson said. "And, in that time, they have nearly destroyed it. I mean if it declines in the next 40 years as it has declined in the last 40 years within England, there will be no Church of England left. The only bits that are making any ground are the Evangelicals and some of the more traditionally minded Catholic part [of the Church of England]."

Anderson pointed out that the decline under the liberal wing has not only included secularization of the church's positions on doctrinal issues. It has also been clearly reflected in the finances of the church in England, with the number of churchgoers falling, less money being made available for charitable work, and many churches having to close.

Anderson added that these developments have coincided with the strong growth of the traditionalist church not only in most of the U.S., but mainly in the developing world, the so-called "global South." And the success in countries in the southern part of the world has led "the South" to start wielding an increasing influence within the whole Church of England, with the South's more conservative positions having an increasing influence in the church's decision-making.

Rees-Mogg pointed out that this is why the influence of the South has prevailed at the General Synod. "It is, I think, unthinkable that the archbishop of Canterbury should not be influenced by the strength of feeling and the weight of numbers," Rees-Mogg said. "It's a fundamental clash of principle, with a very strong reaction in the Third World against what they regard as the watering down of Christian doctrine."

Anderson says that under these circumstances Europe is beginning to be pushed aside in the church's decision-making process. "It's certainly true that if you look at the position of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, it is in a similarly difficult state," Anderson said. "And, that the successful parts of both the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church don't lie within Europe. They lie in the [Southern parts of the world]."

Anderson concluded that if the Church of England splits, its heart and soul would definitely move south, and with them the core of its influence in the world.