The Archbishop of Canterbury broke his silence yesterday over the appointment of a gay bishop to provide tacit approval of the selection and try to damp down the row that threatens to split the Anglican Church.
In a careful statement designed for audiences in Britain and abroad, Dr Rowan Williams said that he "neither sought to promote nor to obstruct" the appointment of Canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. Dr Williams described Canon John, an openly gay theologian, as a "highly gifted candidate" but sought to pacify the strident criticisms of some leaders within the 70 million-strong Anglican following by promising that the appointment was not "embarking on or colluding with any policy of unilateral local change".
Several primates, led by African church leaders, have warned of a split from the Church of England if Canon John is sworn in as bishop as planned in the autumn.
The Most Rev Greg Venables, primate of the South American region, said Dr Williams had failed to heal the divisions with his statement. The crisis had gone beyond the issue of gay bishops and raised questions over the teachings of the Bible, he said.
"The vast majority of Anglicans believe in the plain meaning of scripture. If we change that plain meaning we would have to accept that the rest of scripture is not reliable."
He called on Dr Williams to block Canon John's appointment. Dr Williams' statement in front of the cameras came after weeks of silence during which the row over Canon John's appointment has grown in both volume and vehemence.
Canon John issued a statement last week in which he spoke of his 27-year relationship with another man but said he was now celibate in line with a document issued in 1991 by the church on the issue of sexuality including that of clergy.
Dr Williams refused to take questions on the subject but, in the courtyard of Lambeth Palace, he read out a letter that he was sending to the 116 bishops in England. He said he did not believe the appointment meant the issue could no longer be discussed but he tried to appease the opposition by saying there had been no attempt to appoint gay bishops by stealth.
Dr Williams said: "Let us be clear: there can be no question of trying to pre-empt, undermine or short-circuit the reflection of the church as a whole." He said "serious questions" remained in the Oxford diocese where the appointment was made. "It is not for anyone outside the diocese to override or pre-empt what is obviously a painful and complex process."
Canon John's selection has prompted internal feuding within the Church of England. The Right Rev Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, who was behind the selection, faces a rebellion from within his own clergy but has vowed to stand by his decision.
Dr Harries told BBC2's Newsnight: "Jeffrey John has become a symbol, for some people a symbol of where they don't want the Church of England to go, and for others a symbol of where they do want the Church of England to go, that is to be much more accepting and affirming of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church...
"If an openly gay person, committed to [a] chaste, sexually abstinent lifestyle can't be welcomed into the House of Bishops, well frankly there's no hope for gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church. There is huge support in the country for this appointment."
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