The farce over the appointment of the Bishop of Reading descended into chaos yesterday when gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and six activists burst into the Church of England's General Synod and brought it to a halt.
Mr Tatchell walked on to the stage, unfurled a banner reading "Church of hate stop crucifying queers" and challenged members to put him to death in accordance with Biblical teaching.
He was protesting at the Church's decision not to proceed with the appointment of Canon Jeffrey John, who is gay, as Bishop of Reading - an issue the assembly had hoped to ignore. But instead the synod at York University was brought to a halt for 40 minutes while Mr Tatchell harangued members. "You can see the voice of bigotry and unreason here today," he said. "Your ears are deaf and your eyes are blind. You do not witness the suffering of gay and lesbian people."
Mr Tatchell accused the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, of "betraying his own principles" and told the synod he had "bowed to pressure from theological homophobes" such as the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola.
While half the members walked out in protest, and some who remained argued with Mr Tatchell, he was applauded by some liberal members of the synod, the church's governing council.
Senior liberals in the Church of England are blaming American evangelicals for the "fifth column" campaign of dissent which sabotaged the appointment of Jeffrey John, Britain's first openly gay bishop, last week.
Still furious that Canon John was pressured into turning down the chance to become Bishop of Reading, his supporters are now claiming that the US Bible belt inspired and helped to fund the high-profile opposition.
Last night Dr Williams was preparing to defend the Church's handling of the debacle at General Synod, and this weekend he called for a pause in the debate until an official report on the issue is published in the autumn.
But prominent figures at Southwark Cathedral, where Canon John still works as Canon Theologian, and from the Diocese of Oxford, which sought to make the controversial appointment, were warning that the evangelical network at the centre of the campaign wants to establish a church within the Church.
The Very Reverend Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, condemned the opponents of Canon John as the "Anglican Taliban", and called for an inquiry into how such groups are funded. "The campaign against Jeffrey was enormously well organised and well funded," he said.
Another senior Anglican close to the affair said: "One of the things that's become apparent is the role of American evangelicals. You begin to see the same people cropping up all around the globe."
Dr Slee accused evangelicals from America and Australia of making substantial cash handouts to third world bishops who support their views, particularly at the time of the Lambeth conference in 1998, which produced a strong Anglican statement backing traditionalist teaching on sexuality.
Last weekend Canon John decided not to accept the post after a six-hour meeting with Dr Williams and senior staff from Lambeth Palace. It now seems he was under pressure to decline because of fears that the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican movement could split apart. The proposed appointment had provoked fury in the developing world, where views on sexuality are notably more conservative.
Canon John was asked to take up the post by Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, despite acknowledging that he has been in a same-sex relationship for nearly three decades. He says the relationship has been celibate since the 1990s.
At the heart of the opposition was a group calling itself Anglican Mainstream, formed earlier this year when a group of 35 clergymen and prominent Anglicans from around the world met in Oxford.
One of those present at the founding meeting included Andrew Carey, the son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey. The younger Carey is a columnnist for The Church of England Newspaper, an evangelical tabloid. Others present at the meeting included Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies, the Most Rev Gregory Venables, Presiding Bishop of the Southern Cone (in south America), the Rt Rev James Stanton, Bishop of Dallas, the Rt Rev Maurice Sinclair, former primate of the Southern Cone, and Canon David Anderson, chairman of the American Anglican Council. A group of nine Church of England bishops added to the pressure by criticising the appointment in an open letter to the Archbishop.
Some have blamed the Lambeth Palace staff left behind by Dr Williams's predecessor, the evangelical Dr Carey, for opposing Canon John. But even close supporters of the theologian believe this line of speculation is largely unfounded.
The Rev Piers Bickersteth, Vicar of Aborfield, Reading, and a spokesman for Anglican Mainstream, denied absolutely that there was any American funding for the group.
Rod Thomas from the Anglican evangelical group Reform added: " What happened in the case of Jeffrey John was much more like a groundswell than a campaign."
Anglican Mainstream, he said, included Anglo-Catholics as well as evangelicals.Reuse content