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Paul Vallely: Rowan Williams cannot now prevent an Anglican schism

Rowan Williams bought himself time for a while in his attempt to hold the Anglican Communion together in its row over gay bishops. But yesterday it looked like that time is running out.

He had appealed to the liberal church in the United States to impose a moratorium on electing any more gay bishops after the divisive election of Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003. But the ceasefire between liberals and evangelicals has effectively been ended by the election of a bishop who has committed a double sin in the eyes of conservatives: Canon Mary Glasspool is a woman priest and has openly been a lesbian for 21 years.

Dr Williams is clinging to one final hope. Her selection has still to be ratified by the national church before she is ordained next May. In theory her appointment could be rejected. But it is a forlorn expectation. The mood in the US church is that it is time to reject conservative intolerance and affirm that homosexuals are as loved by God as heterosexuals. The conservative group Reform yesterday said that a schism is now "absolutely inevitable". What has irritated liberals is the speed with which Dr Williams has issued his statement requesting "a period of gracious restraint" which is church-speak for urging the ceasefire to continue.

It comes in contrast to Lambeth Palace's unwillingness to make public comment about the anti-gay laws being proposed in Uganda where homosexuals are already liable to be jailed for life. A new bill will impose the death penalty on HIV positive gay men for "aggravated homosexuality". The law is being backed by at least one Ugandan bishop who has denounced homosexuality as a sign of modern Western decadence. But though Dr Williams' office has let it be known that he is appalled by the proposed law, he feels that publicly condemning it will make it more rather than less likely to come into force.

So it has come to this, for a man who made his reputation as one of Anglicanism's leading liberal catholic theologians: he swiftly condemns liberal Americans for being too tolerant, and yet feels forced to remain silent over a rank and brutal inhumanity.

Critics from both sides have unkindly quipped that Dr Williams has boldly nailed his colours to the fence. He may find that preferring unity to truth will not be possible much longer.