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Anglicans Perilously Close To Split Over Gay Clergy

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is trying to keep the church intact

The Anglican church communion, numbering some 77 million people worldwide, is facing the possibility of a complete fracture over the question of gay clergy.

A conference of conservative churchmen is now going on in Jerusalem in which they may decide that they can no longer live under the same roof as their liberal colleagues. The conference comes just weeks before the spiritual head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, convenes a once-in-a-decade meeting which will try to heal the wounds.

Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinole, the de facto leader of the hardliners in the Anglican Church, believes that there is already a schism between those who follow traditional interpretations of the Christian scriptures and those who take a more modern, flexible view. In a guidebook to the Jerusalem conference, a sort of conservative manifesto, Akinole writes that "there is no longer any hope" of a unified church.

The 280 bishops and 1,000 lesser clergy and lay people attending the weeklong conference may decide to openly secede from the present church structure. It remains to be seen how many of the estimated 35 million conservatively-minded Anglicans around the world would follow them out.

At the heart of the trouble is the issue of homosexual clergy. The liberal American church's appointment in 2003 of an openly gay bishop to the U.S. state of New Hampshire deeply offended the conservatives, who draw much of their strength from Africa.

Making matters worse are reports that two homosexual clergymen have gone through a church marriage ceremony in England.

Literal Interpretation

But it is not only questions of sexual morality that divide the two sides. The conservatives take a very different approach to the holy scriptures than the liberals. The one side believes in a literal, unchanging interpretation to the holy writings, while the liberals seek a more adaptive approach.

There are also differences over how to deal with Islam, with the conservatives taking a more cautious approach toward their fellow monotheistic faith. Jim Rosenthal, the organiser of the Archbishop of Canterbury's upcoming July conference in London, indicated that he does not see this as a serious problem.

"We have very active interfaith work throughout the Anglican communion, it's seen as important, and a lot of time, money, and energy is put into it, and it has different results in different places," Rosenthal said. "Some live in great fear of one another; in some places like Jerusalem and the Middle East there is great cooperation between Muslims and Christians; in others there's conflict. There is no magic answer."

All these divergent ideas create a headache for the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has to try to keep both sides under his umbrella.

Rosenthal said that the London conference will be a key moment for the Anglican faith. "We are very clear that we are at a difficult time in our church's history, but throughout all the Christian Church's history from the Bible on through the ages, the church has dealt with conflict and disagreement," Rosenthal said. "Hopefully, the church will be the stronger for it, not the weaker, and...we will be able to listen and learn from each other."

But dialogue and reconciliation will be difficult because most of the bishops attending the Jerusalem meeting -- the core of the conservative movement -- are refusing to attend the London conference with their primate.

Rosenthal says the conference will be an "indaba" -- a Zulu word meaning a debate, an exchange of views in which no definite conclusion is meant to be reached.

The use of an African term is significant, in so far as it indicates the extent to which the weight of the Anglican church is moving southwards, to the socially-conservative developing world, away from the liberal north.

An inclusive result is the best that the Archbishop of Canterbury can hope for from both the Jerusalem meeting and the London "indaba." That way he can hope to hold together the two divergent groups at least for a little while longer.