Williams ventures to Africa and the heart of gay bishops row

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The Independent Online

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, sets out on a journey today to the region most vehemently opposed to allowing gay bishops in the Church of England.

In his first official overseas trip to a province of the Anglican Communion, he will go to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Gambia, whose bishop, Dr Tilewa Johnson, was one of the most fierce African voices raised against the recent plan to appoint an openly homosexual man to the post of Bishop of Reading.

Officials at Lambeth Palace are reconciled to the fact that the issue of homosexuality, which Dr Williams had hoped to leave behind after calling for a pause for thought at the General Synod this month, may well be raised again on what is intended to be a supportive visit to one of the provinces of the Anglican Communion that is growing rapidly.

Dr Johnson, who is also Dean of the Province of West Africa - which covers 13 dioceses in Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - described the aborted plan to appoint Canon Jeffery John to the position as "mind-boggling".

He said at the time: "One must be out of one's mind to want to have sex with another man. We in Africa are denigrated as conservative and backward and the West think we are all heathens here, but to us it is unnatural. Many of us have got our placards ready, we are ready to protest until someone takes notice."

When the Archbishop of Canterbury arrives in Gambia, the bishop said, "I would love to talk to him about it".

Concern to prevent a schism among the 75 million Anglicans in the world-wide communion is believed to have been Dr Williams' prime anxiety during the Jeffery John affair, which ended after the archbishop persuaded Dr John to stand down.

Dr Williams will meet church, state and traditional leaders on the eight-day tour, in which he will be accompanied by his wife, the theology lecturer Dr Jane Williams. Talks are expected to focus on a wide range of issues, both internal and external, affecting the Church.

Homosexuality will not, however, be the only issue at the interface of theology and culture. First stop is Ghana, where Anglicanism mainly takes a "high church" Anglo-Catholic form. The Church there has only just endorsed the ordination of women after a long debate which, in the main, did not centre on theological issues but on traditional African roles of men and women. In a society where a menstruating woman cannot prepare food, and a pregnant woman cannot carry fire in the last month of pregnancy, the argument was on how women in such states could celebrate the Eucharist.

Ghana is also on the brink of breaking away from the rest of the West Africa province to become a province in its own right. On Sunday, Dr Williams lands in Sierra Leone where he will preside at a massive service in the national stadium in Freetown. The dominant issue there is the war in neighbouring Liberia, which is flooding Sierra Leone and Gambia with millions of refugees.

Though the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone ended last year there will be no peace, the Archbishop will be told, if the situation in Liberia is not resolved quickly.

On Monday, Dr Williams flies to Gambia where Bishop Johnson's wife was recently ordained as Mother Priscilla Johnson - the only woman priest in the country.

In Gambia, where the Church is a minority community among the majority Muslims who make up 90 per cent of the population, the main issues are poverty, refugees and child labour.

Church leaders have expressed deep concern about children, mostly from Senegal, being sent into Gambia to serve as domestic staff throughout the country. Though in theory they receive a small salary to send back to their families at home, some Church leaders describe them as virtual slaves.