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Anglican rebels to appoint their own bishops

The schism in the Church of England over the ordination of practising homosexuals widened yesterday when Reform, a conservative evangelical group, announced plans to create its own bishops and to plant its own churches outside the Church of England that would be "legally independent but theologically connected".

"We intend to use the structures of the Church of England in its institutional forms where they forward the Gospel," the group announced.

Reform, which claims as members 600 priests out of the 10,000 who belong to the Church of England, did much to organise the protests against the service last autumn at Southwark Cathedral in south-east London to mark the 20th anniversary of the gay Christian movement. The group con- demned the service as "a blasphemy".

Reform is also opposed to women being ordained as priests, on the grounds that the Bible mandates patriarchy.

For several years the group has been moving in the direction of setting up a quasi- independent church - first by withholding money from diocesan funds, second by threatening to train candidates for the priesthood who would continue Reform's beliefs, and now by creating their own bishops, who could in turn ordain priests.

Such bishops would be illegal under English law, but their ordination would be valid. It is difficult to see what sanctions the Church of England would take against them.

Although Reform represents a tiny minority in the General Synod - where it has fewer than 16 seats out of 560 - it operates from a base of large and prosperous conservative evangelical churches, some of whom are already withholding payments from diocesan funds.

When asked whether this is not splitting the church, leaders reply that it is the other side doing the splitting.

In a statement announcing their plans for new bishops, the group says: "We ... are the Church of England. Our parishes are seen to be the embodiment of the doctrine that defines and constitutes the Church of England. Reform is not, therefore, 'a Church within the Church'. We are not about to 'leave the Church of England'."

It continued: "We define the Church of England not by bishops and synods, but, as it is established, by the Bible, the creeds and the canons."

Reform is vague about when the proposed bishops might be consecrated. It sees their deployment as a final step if the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, refuses to grant their request for a "flying bishop" who would share their theological views. The two "flying bishops" so far appointed to minister to the opponents of women priests have been Anglo-Catholic, and disagree with Reform on almost everything except the undesirability of women priests.

Dr Carey is unlikely to accede to this request. Last autumn he denounced "bullying, loudmouthed controversialists" in the Church: this attack was aimed at Reform.

Many of the Reform parishes are already in dispute with their bishops: one, in south London, has asked for the episcopal oversight of the Bishop of Fulham, an Anglo-Catholic opposed to women priests, rather than the evangelical bishop of Southwark, the Right Rev Roy Williamson .

No official comment was forthcoming from the Church of England to this latest threat from Reform. Dr Carey is on sabbatical in the United States, and cannot be reached because the electronic mail system on his computer is broken.