Exodus fears as Synod takes a fresh look at old attitudes

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The Church of England last night voted to reconsider the issue of homosexual priests in a highly charged General Synod debate that exposed the gulf dividing Anglicans.

Both liberal and traditionalist speakers at the meeting in York warned that the issue could provoke a mass exodus from the church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, poured cold water on gay Christians' hopes for a more liberal approach, saying he did not "share the assumption that it is only a matter of time before the Church will change its mind".

The debate was prompted by a motion tabled by the Archdeacon of Wandsworth, the Ven David Gerrard, asking Synod to acknowledge that a document issued by bishops in 1991 was "not the last word on the subject". The document stated that while practising gays could take their place as lay members of the church, they were not welcome among the ranks of clergy.

In a moving speech, the Rev Michael Vasey, a theology lecturer who has argued that homosexual acts are not forbidden by the Bible, denounced the church as hostile to gay Christians. He said that his evangelical opponents had made two attempts to "out" him. "In the first attempt, three people who are now diocesan bishops in this room were silent partners," he said. "The church is a place of danger for gay people. That is why we are leaving in droves ..."

"So often the church has failed to lead in preventing or rectifying injustice. Indeed, some of our past and present teaching may give some twisted and prejudiced people justification for their violent persecutions of gay people, however much we may deplore such actions."

Mr Gerrard asked delegates: "Is mere condemnation of homophobia sufficient while homosexuals, both lay and clergy, have often only been accepted in our churches if they have been prepared to remain invisible and inaudible?"

The Rev Malcolm Johnson, from London, added: "I find it obscene that happily married heterosexual bishops condemn their gay clergy to celibacy. I believe we need an ethic for homosexuals other than 'stop it'."

In response, Canon Max Wigley, from Bradford, said any modification of the church's stance would be damaging. He said: "If ever legislation is passed by this Synod which allows for practising homosexuals to be ordained, I am afraid that the number of clergy and lay people who will leave the Church of England will make the numbers who left over the ordination of women look infinitesimal." He was backed by Alison Ruoff, a lay delegate from Hertfordshire, who said the Scriptures made clear that homosexual acts were unnatural and therefore wrong. "Homosexuals are not born as such; the choice to go on sinning is theirs," she said.

Dr Carey pleased hardliners by expressing uncompromising opposition to homosexual acts. "I do not find any justification, from the Bible or the entire Christian tradition, for sexual activity outside marriage," he said. Thus same-sex relationships in my view cannot be on a par with marriage. Clergy, especially, must model relationships that commend the faith of Christ."