A decade ago it was women priests; now it's gay clergy. The Church of England is embroiled in another anguished dispute that pits liberals against conservatives and evangelicals, and threatens to split the 70-million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion apart. The trigger: Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries' appointment of a gay man as Bishop of Reading.
Arguments over homosexuality in the priesthood have simmered for years, even as a blind eye has been turned to the fact that some members of the clergy are gay. But the appointment in May of Jeffrey John, canon theologian at London's Southwark Cathedral and a gay-rights advocate who's been in a relationship with the same man for 27 years, is regarded by evangelicals as a step too far. While critics insist that they are not anti-gay, they argue the Bible condemns homosexuality and that a bishop should follow the rules and set an example. Many also worry that the move is a liberal fait accompli that preempts a full church discussion on the issue.
And Anglican conservatives feel they have a lot to be upset about. John's appointment follows the election of a homosexual bishop by American Episcopalians in New Hampshire, and the defiance of a Vancouver church that conducted a blessing for a gay couple despite a ban on such ceremonies that was unanimously reaffirmed by the Anglican leadership just days before. The row over John has meanwhile become so rancorous that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a liberal on the issue, warned that it was generating "real incomprehension in much of our society, in a way that does nothing for our credibility."
It has done nothing, either, for the unity of a church proud of its tolerance and diversity. The argument has set bishop against bishop, and ranged the more conservative churches in the developing world against the liberal ones in the West. "There will be a lot more bad blood," predicts Derek Rawcliffe, 82, who in 1995 became the second retired Anglican bishop to admit to being gay. "It will take years to work out."
In the diocese of Oxford, 80 members of the clergy begged Harries to withdraw John's appointment. Nationwide, eight English bishops publicly endorsed the gay bishop-elect while nine opposed, including two former challengers to Williams for the top Canterbury job. In Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, who leads 17.5 million Anglicans and is a strong critic of homosexuality, told the BBC: "We would sever relationships with anybody, anywhere, anyone who strays over the boundaries." Archbishops in the West Indies and South America have added their protests, and in Sydney, Archbishop Peter Jensen warned of a schism.
The greatest opposition comes from the areas of greatest vibrancy and growth in the church. Williams was careful to note the Oxford dissenters' concerns were "theologically serious, intelligible and by no means based on narrow party allegiance or on prejudice." But he stressed that he was assured John was a gifted candidate who would work loyally within the framework of doctrine.
So what worries the protestors so much? Lay minister Philip Giddings, a senior lecturer in politics at Reading University, says the Bible is plainly against homosexual practice and should not be reinterpreted to pander to changing social mores. "The problem is we live in a pick-and-choose culture," he says. Adds Rev. Charlie Cleverly, rector of Oxford's St. Aldate's: "We feel we don't want to throw aside 2,000 years of traditional interpretation and practice without a really serious and careful debate." The fact that John says he has been celibate since 1991 when the bishops famously stated that gay clergy must be celibate even if gay laity need not be doesn't seem to matter. Nor do liberal arguments that the Church has changed its teaching on everything from eternal hellfire to divorce and remarriage, so why not this?
For those outside the church, as Williams warned, this obsession with human sexuality seems incomprehensible. In his letter to English bishops about John last week, Williams also wrote of the "violent conflict, epidemic disease, instability and poverty" afflicting millions in Africa. "It does us no harm to think about our own priorities against such a background, and perhaps learn in some matters to give each other a little more time and space for thought." Many believers would say amen to that.