Gay rights report threatens to shatter unity of Anglican Church

The future of the Anglican Church as a truly united religion claiming influence over five continents will be decided today in a key report triggered by a bitter row over gay rights. Conservatives and liberals within the church will seize on the report's findings to support their own views on homosexuality and religious teaching.

The issue of homosexuality threatened to split the church last year when a self-governing US member of the Anglican Communion permitted the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

In Britain, a similar row followed the nomination of Dr Jeffrey John, a gay but celibate clergyman, as Bishop of Reading. Dr John withdrew his acceptance of the post and became the Dean of St Albans.

In a move designed to head-off schism, the Anglican Communion, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, established the Lambeth Commission a year ago to look at ways of settling disputes among Anglican Church groups which represent an estimated 76 million church-goers worldwide.

Conservative Anglican bishops in Africa, South America and South-east Asia, and several in America have accused the Episcopal Church of breaking with Christian moral teaching by consecrating Gene Robinson, who is in a committed relationship with a man.

About 17 Anglican provinces declared their communion with the US church impaired or broken, refusing to recognise Bishop Robinson's election. And 10 of the American church's 110 dioceses have affiliated themselves with the conservative Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, which said it upholds the Scriptures and traditional teaching on homosexuality.

Today's report is not expected to call for the expulsion of the Episcopal Church and its 2.3 million membership nor deal directly with homosexuality. But criticism or support for either position will rekindle the dispute.

A Lambeth Palace source said yesterday: "Everything depends on what sort of reaction this report will provoke when people start putting their own interpretations on the words. This debate is absolutely crucial to the whole Anglican Church but this is just the first day of what will be a very long process."

Another source close to the Lambeth Commission said that it was an achievement in itself to have kept the panel of 17 church leaders talking for a whole year without a single resignation.

But to underestimate the wide divisions in the Anglican Church would be a mistake. The Rev Martin Reynolds, spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said: "We are not in crisis. It is those people who find homosexuality unacceptable who are in crisis. We hope this report is the beginning of a long discussion, not the last word."

But conservatives have called for the report to take tough action on those dioceses that support homosexuality. The Lambeth report may call for a series of "core covenants" for churches to sign up to and follow in a bid to unite them. This has heightened concerns.

The Rev David Phillips, general secretary of the Church Society, said: "Every organisation needs rules about what is and is not acceptable behaviour amongst its members. The Anglican Communion is being asked to decide what to do when some members deliberately break the agreed rules."

When Archbishop Robin Eames, the Anglican Primate of Ireland, was appointed as chairman of the Lambeth Commission, he said: "I am conscious of the importance and the delicacy of the work the commission will have to undertake.

"It is important to see the whole of the task: we have not been charged with finding the answers to the questions of sexuality, but with assisting the Communion to respond to recent developments in our churches in North America in a way which is fully faithful to Christ's call for the unity of his Church."

This worldwide fellowship includes the Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican Church in Canada, the Church of England in England, the Scottish Episcopal Church in Scotland, and 34 other national churches elsewhere in the world. Each national church, or province, has wide powers of self-government. Their leaders, or primates, meet every 10 years in London at the Lambeth Conference to reach general agreement on basic matters of faith and social policy.

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