The canon retreats, but the battle for the Church will go on

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Canon Jeffrey John said yesterday he had withdrawn from the post of Bishop of Reading to preserve the unity of the Anglican Church. But his decision is likely to intensify the angry debate over the church's ambivalent attitude towards homosexuality.

Had Dr John taken up his appointment, the anger among conservatives would have continued, possibly leading to some churches, mainly in Africa, severing ties with the diocese of Oxford, which the Bishop of Reading serves.

But a bridge between the church and the modern world would have been crossed. The Anglican community might have survived the uneasy truce between the liberal and conservative wings of the church that has underpinned its stance on homosexuality.

Now, the polarisation between the two camps that was sparked by the appointment of Dr John, who admits to being homosexual but says he is in a long-term celibate relationship, is likely to intensify.

Although liberals and campaigners for gay rights have suffered a severe setback, they are likely to double their efforts to gain the appointment of openly gay clerics, while the traditionalists will be triumphant and feel they can dictate church policy.

As the gay human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said, a bigger battle may be yet to come. "It is monstrous that the Church of England is allowing its appointments to be dictated by ecclesiastical bigots like the Archbishop of Nigeria. Dr John's withdrawal is a capitulation to homophobia. It suggests that honest, truthful gay clergy like Dr John have no place in the church. Having scored this victory, anti-gay evangelists are looking to step up their campaign against gay people in the church."

His comments were echoed in less inflammatory terms by a spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

"We have a two-fold mission," he said. "To bring Christ to the gay and lesbian community and to bring understanding of gay and lesbian matters to the churches. The 'Reading' spectacle has made the first part of that mission all the more difficult."

Dr John was appointed by the Bishop of Oxford, the Right Rev Richard Harries, who is one of the church's leading liberals. Dr Harries has already said that he wants to see a more "gay and lesbian friendly" church and that the appointment of Dr John was a "matter of integrity". Dr John's decision is unlikely to make him change his views.

But the Rev Rod Thomas, the chairman of the evangelical campaign group Reform, warned that future appointments would be scrutinised: "There must be now a huge question mark over the whole procedures for appointing bishops since this very difficult situation has been created.

Signalling the next battleground he said: "On top of that, the question is what action needs to be taken by the Anglican Communion about the position in the USA, where an appointment similar to Jeffrey John's has been made." The Rev Gene Robinson was elected Episcopalian Bishop of New Hampshire a month ago, but his appointment has attracted comparatively little controversy.

Conservatives, who are mainly in the African and Asian wings of the wider Anglican community, base their opposition on the literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament condemnation of men having sex together as an "abomination". A new group, called New Network Anglican Mainstream, formed from church leaders in North and South America and the Caribbean, also objected to the appointment. The creation of the organisation has been seen as a possible first step towards a split in the church.

The crisis has created a dilemma for the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who has expressed personal support for gay priests but has indicated he will uphold traditional thinking.

Dr Williams warned traditionalists that the issue could not be buried. "Canon John's withdrawal should not be taken to mean that the Church can now stop being concerned about how it discerns the will of God in this area of ethics.''

Later this year, the church will publish a "study guide" to Issues in Human Sexuality, its deliberately fudged 1991 decree allowing ordinary members of the church to have monogamous gay relationships but requiring celibacy from homosexual priests.

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