The Church divided

A gay service has provoked the biggest row since women's ordination
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The service of gay and lesbian celebration at Southwark Cathedral tomorrow has become the focus of the biggest row in the Church of England since the ordination of women.

More than 2,000 people will travel from all over the country for a day- long festival to mark the 20th anniversary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. It will be attended by three English bishops, supported by the heads of four Anglican churches around the world, among them Desmond Tutu - and attacked by traditionalists with an impassioned mixture of prayer and propaganda.

More than 50 churches will hold gatherings of prayer and repentance against the service. Most of them belong to Reform, a network of conservative evangelical churches which is also opposed to the ordination of women. The Reform churches have threatened various degrees of separation from the official church over the issue.

Reform leaders insist they are not homophobic, and that they treat gays as individuals compassionately. "This service is not about pastoral problems," said the Rector of Jesmond, the Rev David Holloway, yesterday. "You're dealing with a political issue, about how to order society and the church." The service has shocked evangelical opinion inside and outside the church.

Supporters of the movement see it as an opportunity for the church to show the world that homosexuals can have an honoured place, after centuries of persecution. Caught in the middle are the cathedral authorities, and most bishops of the Church of England, who feel they can neither support open homosexuality nor force it back into the closet.

The only thing to unite both sides is agreement that the Church's present position is ridiculous and illogical. In fact, there are at least three positions. The first, adopted by the General Synod in 1987, is that "homosexual genital acts ... fall short of the ideal ... and must be met with a call to repentance". This coexists uneasily with a House of Bishops report in 1991 which said the laity might in some circumstances have homosexual relationships, but priests might not. Both these statements contradict the third, unofficial, position, which was the one actually adopted by the House of Bishops until very recently: "Don't do it in the street and frighten the horses."

The most recent official position - the bishops' 1991 report - is not far in practice from the position of other mainstream denominations, such as Catholics and Methodists. There, just as in the Church of England, it is possible for homosexual lay people to be accepted in some congregations. What makes the Church of England a uniquely difficult case is the existence of a fairly large and self-confident body of gay priests.

Both Lord Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and the former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, admitted to having knowingly ordained practising homosexuals. Several serving diocesan bishops admit it privately. Many more shelter the homosexual clergy they have inherited.

When the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Roy Williamson, suggested last year that he, too, would be prepared to ordain practising homosexuals if they met all the other criteria for ordination, he was rapidly made to retract and forced off the board of an evangelical society. His diocese covers London south of the Thames, while the diocese of London covers the city north of the river.

The two have much the highest concentration of gay priests in England. One well-placed observer suggested to me that under the previous Bishop of London, the Rt Rev David Hope, there were about 200 priests in the diocese who had active homosexual relationships. Dr Hope himself was one of ten bishops "outed" by a pressure group, and subsequently announced that his sexuality was a "grey area", though one that he had never explored. He is now Archbishop of York.

There is no prospect of an early resolution. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, has repeatedly appealed for Christians to concentrate on more urgent matters. But conservatives, like Dr Holloway, see this as an issue on which they can defeat creeping liberalism, while to the gays and their supporters it is a simple issue of justice.

Battle hymn of the gay community

A hymn written for the Southwark festival by the former Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, the Rt Rev Derek Rawcliffe.

Onward, Christian homos,

Marching out with pride.

Queers and fags and drag queens

Walking side by side.

We are not divided,

All one body we,

Gay and lesbian Christians,

For equality.

Onward Christian homos

Marching side by side,

Glad to own our gayness,

Glad to walk with pride

We will not be hidden,

We will not be dumb.

Out of fearful closets

Gladly we have come.

Christian gays and lesbians,

We will now be heard,

Claiming our acceptance,

By our loving Lord.

Onward Christian homos

Marching side by side,

Glad to own our gayness,

Glad to walk with pride

Onward Christian homos,

Raise a joyful song.

Though the church may spurn us,

That's where we belong.

Bishops shall not fright us,

Homophobes must flee.

Hand in hand we celebrate

Our sexuality.

Onward Christian homos

Marching side by side,

Glad to own our gayness,

Glad to walk with pride