Andrew Brown: At last, a theological row that's about theology

Wednesday 18 September 2002 00:00 BST

It's almost always front-page news when a bishop says something obviously true. Dr George Carey has spent most of his time in office pretending he is the spiritual leader of 70 million people in the worldwide Anglican Communion (a figure that assumes about 24 million followers in England alone).

Now, in a final gesture towards his liberal successor, he has cited the obvious, that the Communion is deeply divided over homosexuality. It has, he says, reached "crisis point".

One might have thought the crisis point was reached five years ago, when a Nigerian bishop tried to exorcise the leader of the English Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement on live television. But the crisis over sexuality goes much deeper. Before the Anglicans were feuding about homosexuals, they spent 20 years wrangling about women priests.

But the issue of homosexuality is different because it is a battleground in the civil war raging in the US branch of the Anglican Communion, the bit that pays for all the apparatus that lets the Archbishop of Canterbury appear on the world stage.

The American church is split between northern liberals and southern conservatives, and both sides have staged brutal legal battles over churches and their properties, where liberal bishops (who are elected) have been defied by conservative priests who call them "heretics".

On the internet, the two sides seek allies all over the world, to co-ordinate their hatreds, with the help of websites, e-mail, and poisonous newsletters.

Most of the conservative allies are in the developing world, or Asian churches; in both areas, Christianity competes with Islam as a missionary religion. But it grows in ways that make it appear ridiculous and profoundly immoral to anyone who cannot believe the literal truth of the Bible.

At the 1988 Lambeth Conference, a Pakistani bishop said: "I believe Sodom and Gomorrah didn't exist 4,000 years ago only, but these cities and these men are having their existence in our world today."

The argument isn't really about what the Sodomites did to each other when they weren't trying to gang-rape angels. The real schism comes because the Western, educated world no longer believes the Bible story of what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah. This is one theological scandal that's about theology. No wonder they hate each other so.

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