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'Trying Times Ahead For Church,' says Anglican Archbishop - 2003-08-06

Church of England leaders say the Anglican community worldwide faces trying times ahead with the decision of U.S. Episcopalians Tuesday to appoint an openly homosexual bishop.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said there will be what he calls "difficult days" coming with the appointment of an openly gay Episcopal bishop in the U.S. state of New Hampshire.

The archbishop, Rowan Williams, is the spiritual leader of the 77 million Christians around the world who belong to what is called the Anglican Communion.

In a statement, Archbishop Williams said the appointment of Bishop-elect Gene Robinson by the U.S. Episcopal Church will have a significant impact on the Anglican Church, but it is too early to say what the result of that will be.

Amid concern the church could split over the issue, the archbishop warned against what he describes as "significant and irrevocable decisions" made in response to the Robinson appointment.

Anglicans around the world are debating the fallout of having an actively homosexual bishop.

Conservatives say the Bible forbids homosexual acts, while liberals argue those Old Testament scriptures were superseded by the teachings of Jesus Christ, who made no recorded comments on homosexuality.

The issue was discussed Wednesday by Church of England officials on British radio.

A conservative writer for the Church of England newspaper, Andrew Carey, said traditionalists will never accept a homosexual bishop. "The problem with the appointment is that for many people this seems to sort of institutionalize something that has always been regarded as sinful -forgivable but sinful," Mr. Carey said.

And he said Archbishop Williams will have tough decisions to make. "Things will unfold gradually. There won't be an immediate split. But there will be a time of realignment and great difficulty. And I think the Archbishop of Canterbury will have to recognize at least two jurisdictions in the United States of America," Mr. Carey said.

On the other side of the debate is the Reverend Colin Slee, dean of London's Southwark Cathedral. He said the Church of England should not butt into the affairs of the U.S. Episcopalians.

"I don't think it is right for the Church anywhere else to interfere with appointments made in another province. It's not our business to interfere with what's happening in the United States," Reverend Slee said.

And he said that, given the limited powers and loose structure of Anglicanism, there is not a lot the Archbishop of Canterbury can do. "The Anglican Communion is an association of voluntary societies. All of the provinces all over the world voluntarily belong to it. He is not like the pope and he definitely leads by consensus. I think the Church of England has always been - and therefore the Anglican Communion has become - a very flexible sort of orthodoxy within which we hope there is open and mature debate all of the time," Mr. Slee said.

Britain has recently had its own controversy over homosexual leaders in the Church of England.

Canon Jeffery John was named bishop of Reading in southeast England in May, but he turned down the appointment last month amid dispute over his 27-year relationship with a male partner.

Archbishop Williams, though considered a liberal, reportedly pressured the bishop-elect to stand down.

In the coming months, archbishops from Africa and Asia plan to meet Archbishop Williams on the issue of gays in the ministry. Church leaders from those regions are staunchly traditionalist. In Nigeria, where Anglicans are in competition with a growing Islamic movement, church leaders have threatened to break away if homosexual bishops and gay marriage are officially sanctioned.