Bishops debate ordination of gay clergy

The Church of England synod debate on homosexuality is likely to be a troubled one
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In what promises to be the most explosive debate since the ordination of women priests, the Church of England General Synod will today wrestle for the first time in 10 years with the question of its attitude towards homosexual clergy.

The issue will expose bitter divisions between the Church's liberal and evangelical wings. The demands of the gay lobby have been fuelled by a survey released yesterday which alleged that many Anglican bishops flout their own ban on homosexual priests.

The prospect of agonising in the public gaze about this most difficult of theological dilemmas is not one that senior Church leaders relish. But the debate has been forced upon them by the tabling of a private member's motion calling for further discussion of a document issued by bishops in 1991.

The document, Issues In Human Sexuality, concluded that while practising homosexuals were acceptable as Church lay members, they could not be tolerated within the priesthood.

It was an uncomfortable compromise that satisfied none of the parties, and has since been dismissed as inconsistent.

While traditionalists have tabled an amendment to today's motion calling on the Synod to reaffirm its opposition to any sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage, supporters of gay rights claimed yesterday that the survey was powerful ammunition for their cause.

The poll of 1,000 clergy, conducted by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, reportedly found that 21 serving bishops have knowingly ordained, licensed or employed practising homosexuals. Campaigners have not identified the bishops, but say they include vocal opponents of gay priests.

Richard Kirker, secretary of the movement, which staged a demonstration outside the Synod yesterday, said that the findings exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of Church policy. "These bishops should have the courage of their convictions and own up publicly to what they are privately prepared to do," he said.

The Right Rev Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, admitted that the survey was "embarrassing" for the House of Bishops, but said he thought it unlikely that any ordinations had been conducted after the 1991 guidelines were issued.

The Synod last debated gay priests in 1987, when it overwhelmingly approved a motion stating that "homosexual genital acts" fall short of Christian ideals and require repentance. Since then, Lord Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has admitted that he ordained practising homosexuals and senior clergy have spoken out in favour of a more liberal stance. But Dr George Carey, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, takes a hardline view.

Today's motion, tabled by the Venerable David Gerrard, the Archdeacon of Wandsworth, sounds superficially innocuous. It calls on the Synod to "commend" the 1991 report for discussion in dioceses and to acknowledge that it is "not the last word on the subject".

Some would prefer that the issue remained in the closet. The Rev Tony Higton, a leading evangelical vicar and architect of the 1987 motion, said he had mixed feelings about the debate. "I think many of us wish it were not taking place," he said. "I think it could be very damaging for the Church to be seen to be dallying with the sin of homosexual practice."