There is a heated debate in the Anglican Church over what place, if any, homosexuals should have in the church. The church's new leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has liberal views on the issue, and favors acceptance of gays and lesbians, even in leadership positions. But his view is not universally shared. The controversy threatening to split one of the world's largest churches.
Many people in the Anglican Church have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to take a definitive stand on the issue of homosexuals. But so far, in spite of his well-known liberal views, Archbishop Williams has tried to remain neutral. He says so much focus on sexuality only hurts the broader mission of the church. "What we say about sexuality, and not just on the same-sex question, is a necessary part of our faithfulness but the concentration on this in recent weeks has had the effect of generating real incomprehension in much of our society, in a way that does nothing for our credibility," he says.
In a statement issued on Monday, the Archbishop asked for the debate over homosexuals in the Anglican Church to be pursued with prayer and maturity.
A document issued in 1998 by a conference of bishops was a compromise on gays in the church. It indicated they are welcome to worship and even become members of the clergy. But the bishops said homosexual Anglican clergymen must be celibate. One of them is in the process of being appointed bishop in a diocese in southern England, amid much controversy.
Archbishop Williams is believed to advocate greater tolerance of homosexuals in the church. He ordained a homosexual Anglican clergyman several years ago. But since his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury last February, he has said he would abide by existing church doctrine until a new consensus on the issue can be reached.
A spokesman for the Church of England, the Reverend Peter Sedgwick, says the matter is still open for discussion. "The debate goes on, and no doubt his own views, his own writings will contribute to that debate. This is not a view which says this debate cannot happen and issues in human sexuality is cast in stone. No, we're not arguing that at all. But what we are saying is that this is the document and this is what Archbishop Rowan supports at the moment," he says.
This upsets many Anglican traditionalists who argue that the issue should be put to rest because the Bible forbids all homosexual relationships.
Among them is the Reverend George Curry, head of Church Society, a conservative organization critical of Archbishop Williams' liberal views on the gay issue. "You can't sort of have a marrying up of these two ideas: the liberal idea and the traditional idea or scriptural idea. That, ultimately, is impossible," he says. "We know that there is a vociferous minority who've been working and working away, trying by drip, drip, drip to get the church to change its mind. If the church changes its mind, the church will cease to be church. It will have become something else. It will become a sect."
Among those who have been lobbying for a change in the Anglican Church's policy on homosexuals is the Reverend Richard Kirker, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. For years, he has been trying to convince the nearly 80 million strong worldwide Anglican community to accept lesbians and gays as full members of the church.
Mr. Kirker is optimistic about the church changing its policy, as it has done in the past over such things as slavery, borrowing with interest and, most recently, the ordination of female bishops. "I think an increasing proportion of Christians have little or no problem with the existence of lesbian and gay people as Christians in a church and as office holders at all levels. But there will be a long and, I hope, not too bitter fight to ensure that those who are still in positions of power and authority who want to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation are inhibited from doing so," he says.
The Reverend Kirker has met the most resistance from more traditionalist Anglican churches in parts of Africa and Asia, many of which see the movement to accept lesbian and gay worshippers and clergy as unwelcome influence from the West.
"I don't want to be dragged to a culture that is alien to my culture," says the Anglican Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, who serves as the spiritual leader for nearly 18 million people, the largest Anglican concentration worldwide. I have expressed my disgust at this kind of thing several times. I will travel out of Nigeria to Canterbury, to Brazil to Hong Kong, only to go and find human sexuality on the agenda. I find it offensive. I mean, doesn't the church have anything else to do than to discuss human sexuality, for God's sake? We have other pressing matters to discuss, other pressing issues to come to terms with. Look at the whole problem of poverty, the whole problem of disease, of squalor, of corruption in the world, the whole problem of injustice in the world. We are paying lip service to all those things, and we get together to be talking human sexuality," he says. "In my own culture, in my own context, sexuality is what happens between a man and his wife in the comfort and security of their bedroom."
But the Reverend Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement says homosexual Anglicans are not strictly a Western phenomenon, and that excluding these groups will ultimately divide the church. "There are churches that seem to be prepared to define themselves by how vigorously they're prepared to oppose lesbian and gay people. It's a complete turn-off in the long run, and I think even in cultures such as Nigeria, the Sudan and Uganda, that will be shown to be the case in due course, because within those countries there are emerging indigenous, self-run, locally led lesbian and gay Christian groups," he says. "There are lesbian and gay Anglicans outside the white, Western world."
The worldwide Anglican Church is a loose confederation of 38 regional churches around the world. The Archbishop of Canterbury heads the church, but the other regional Archbishops have a great deal of autonomy. In an effort to keep the church united, Archbishop Williams plans to visit West Africa in the coming weeks, where he will encounter traditionalists who have been among his harshest critics on the issue of homosexuals in the Church.