Talk of schism is rife as bishops debate homosexuality

The very thing that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, hoped to avoid by calling an emergency summit on homosexuality was happening across London yesterday.

Many of the 38 primates of the Anglican Communion, and a number of other church activists, were sequestered in a series of febrile discussions designed to shape the outcome of the primates' two-day meeting, which starts this morning. Talk of schism is in the air.

Dr Williams' aim in calling the meeting was to provide a calm and theological, rather than political, atmosphere in which to discuss the implications of two events: the vote by the Anglican church in the United States to elect a gay bishop, Gene Robinson, and the decision by the Canadian diocese of New Westminster to allow blessings for same-sex couples.

A third flashpoint in the UK was avoided when Dr Williams persuaded his friend, the gay celibate Canon Jeffrey John, to stand down as Bishop of Reading.

A variety of agendas is likely to be presented to this morning's meeting at Lambeth Palace. The one with the evident backing of a majority has been put together by a group of conservative evangelicals that calls itself Anglican Mainstream, and which was being discussed by anti-gay bishops from Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas in a private meeting last night. The discussion was originally to have been held in All Souls, Langham Place, but was moved when news of the venue leaked. It sets out a five-stage plan (see box) which will lead to the expulsion of the US church and Canadian diocese.

Then there is a compromise proposal by the liberal Primate of Southern Africa, Njongonkulu Ndungane, the Archbishop of Cape Town. He has proposed an international commission on sexuality with the hope of finding a theological resolution to the highly divisive issue; a similar approach worked on the ordination of women priests.

Finally - though more options might emerge today - there is a proposal from Dr Williams himself for a commission to decide on mechanisms for common decision making (on subjects such as how the 38 provinces can agree what it is permissible for individual churches to say and do) which the Anglican Communion currently lacks.

One hope is that, once this is established, churches such as the United States's will agree to abide by the new system - meaning that it would have one gay bishop but agree to appoint no more - for the time being at any rate. Such a system would cut both ways. It would also rein in mavericks such as the Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, an evangelical of near-Calvinist theology who has been leading the international anti-gay coalition in the teeth of the disapproval of his own primate, Peter Carnley.

Dr Williams' proposal reveals the morass of uncertainty at the heart of the whole issue. There is no constitutional mechanism to remove people from the Anglican Communion; primates attend its meetings only at the personal invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The only body to have a membership constitution that allows expulsion is the Anglican Consultative Council, which is next due to meet in 2005.

Even if an emergency meeting was called next year Lambeth Palace officials are hoping the interval might provide space in which to find some moderate middle-way solution - of the kind that has always been the genius of Anglicanism with its combined Catholic and Protestant inheritances.

Many are not hopeful that a third way can be found. Parallels drawn with the women priests row are inexact; this time conservatives regard their opponents not just as wrong but as sinners. The hardliners today may insist that the fact that the Lambeth meetings have no formal rules means there is no reason the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot declare himself out of communion with the "guilty parties". That would open a constitutional can of worms over whether Dr Williams can do so alone, or whether a General Synod vote would be necessary.

More probably, many observers suspect, the traditionalists are pursuing a long-term strategy. Few suppose that Gene Robinson can be persuaded to withdraw as Jeffrey John did. So although his consecration on 2 November constitutes a psychological milestone, what the anti-gays are more concerned about this week is getting some hardline condemnation that they can use as leverage at the Anglican Consultative Council or in the US courts in battles over the assets of the Episcopal Church.

What seems indisputable is that it is hard to see how this two-day meeting can avoid being explosive. The emotional temperature is running high. The language being used, in public and in private, is blunt and angry. Insults are being flung about blackmail on one side, and about colonial hubris on the other. There could well be expulsions or walkouts. The mood is that things look likely to get a lot worse before they get better. See how these Christians love one another.

KEY CLERGY IN THE FURORE

The Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen

One of the Anglican Communion's leading evangelicals, he will not be at the meeting because he is not a primate. But he is seen by many as the leading intellectual force behind the anti-gay movement, travelling widely to cement the coalition. In an attack on the Archbishop of Canterbury, he wrote: "He has misjudged the present situation and his peaceable approach has run out of time...his moral authority is on the line." He admits the dispute is "not really about sexual ethics, it's really about the authority of the Bible and God's way of being in charge of his own church".

Gregory Venables, Primate of the Southern Cone (Latin America)

The Bishop of Argentina's flock has just 22,490 souls but the row has made him a major player. With the Primate of Nigeria he is the leader of the anti-gays. He says of the US: "The attitude is: 'You'll get there one day - a few years of Whoopi Goldberg, whatever, you'll come along.'"

Rowan Williams, Primate of the Church of England

Privately, he has liberal views on homosexuality. But as Archbishop of Canterbury his overriding principle is that nothing should be changed that has not been officially agreed. He persuaded the celibate gay Jeffrey John to stand down as Bishop of Reading, annoying many liberals.

Peter Akinola, Primate of Nigeria

Called homosexuality an "aberration unknown even in animal relationships". Is dismissive of those who say his church needs US money, saying the Gospel is not for sale. Has ignored the section of the 1988 Lambeth Resolution saying church leaders should listen to gay people's experiences.

Njongonkulu Ndungane, Primate of Southern Africa

Desmond Tutu's successor as Archbishop of Cape Town has said the US church's decision to elect a gay bishop should be respected. He will propose a high level international commission on sexuality and says: "We must learn how to differ, while holding together."

THE FIVE DEMANDS

The anti-gay faction, thought to constitute a majority, have drawn up a five-stage plan to put to the primates. It will demand the meeting:

1 reaffirms the ban on gay priests made by the Lambeth Conference in 1998

2 rules that the United States church with its gay bishop, and a Canadian disocese with same-sex blessings, have breached this

3 gives a formal warning to these two

4 asks them to repent

5 If they do not, expels them from the Anglican Communion.

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