Clouds of heady white incense swirled above the altar. Female voices cut thrillingly above the deep bass chorus of the men in the packed congregation in St Matthew's, Westminster. But there was more to this than a church service.
Clouds of heady white incense swirled above the altar. Female voices cut thrillingly above the deep bass chorus of the men in the packed congregation in St Matthew's, Westminster. But there was more to this than a church service. A lot more.
Across the river in Lambeth Palace, the primates of the Anglican Communion were meeting for the start of their two-day emergency summit on the crisis about homosexuality which is threatening the 70 million-member community with schism.
In St Matthew's and in St Peter's, Vauxhall, and St John's Waterloo protesters had gathered. These were the three Church of England parish churches nearest to the palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Supporters of gays and lesbians in the priesthood had come together to ensure, in the title of their vigil, that the church leaders from around the world were "surrounded by prayer". They were surrounded by much else. The high emotions raised by the crisis were evident in the language of the Most Rev Walter Makhulu, the retired primate of Central Africa. Until recently, he would have been in the palace with his African colleagues, most of whom are vehemently in favour of disciplining the US and Canadian churches, which have elected a gay bishop and approved blessings for same-sex unions.
Archbishop Makhulu disagreed. His message from the pulpit of St Matthew's was that a church which excluded anyone "altogether denies the nature of a God who loves all".
Drawing parallels with the racism he suffered in his childhood under the apartheid regime in South Africa he denounced the anti-gay position as "a heresy". He compared the zealots to Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan "the Talibans of this day who are prepared to pronounce on who is authentic and who is not".
He concluded: "When the powerful of our church become 'bouncers' out has gone the love of God."
Across the Thames, one of the significant movers in the anti-gay lobby, David Anderson, was holding court to waiting reporters. Asked about Archbishop Makhulu's call for "a fellowship of understanding, compassion and tolerance", the chair of the American Anglican Council said: "The greatest act of love is to point out to someone their error". He predicted schism in the Church if the consecration of the gay bishop, Gene Robinson, went ahead in New Hampshire as planned on 2 November.
"All the bishops who lay hands on him will be derecognised and should suffer loss of office," he said.
How much of his high-octane rhetoric was heard inside the walls of the palace was unclear. The primates spent the first seven hours of their meeting in "worship, prayer, Bible study and discussion", according to the Irish primate, Robin Eames, who left the discussions in the afternoon to speak to the media.
The primates had begun a discussion under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, each "telling the story of how their province has reacted to the development". He had never been to a session where primates had talked with "such openness, frankness and honesty", Dr Eames said.
Contrary to predictions, there was "a tremendous anxiety to maintain the Communion on the basis of collegiality, co-operation and the common faith". Asked whether things were moving towards a vote on which the anti-gay conservatives were assumed to have a majority Dr Eames said: "I can't honestly answer that ... At the moment it is moving towards consensus."
He added: "I'm optimistic that the Anglican Communion will emerge from this stronger than it's ever been."
But the next stage in the meeting was "to reflect on what has been said so far". If the openness, honesty and frankness continue, that is when the rows will begin.Reuse content