Reuters, 9 July 2003

Anglicans to meet amid homosexuality row

By Gideon Long

Last Updated: 09 Jul 2003 10:29 BST

LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England will hold one of its biggest meetings of the year this week amid a row over homosexuality which could tear the Anglican world apart.

Bishops, clergy and lay members of the 470-year-old church will gather in the historic city of York for a General Synod -- effectively a meeting of the church's parliament.

It will be the first synod presided over by Rowan Williams since he was enthroned in February as Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans.

It will also be the first since a row over homosexuality in the church erupted in Canada, the United States and Britain and spread throughout the world from Australia to Africa.

In May, officials in the Canadian diocese of New Westminster broke ranks with church policy by sanctioning same-sex unions to the dismay of Williams, who said the move would create "inevitable tension and division".

Within days, Episcopalians (U.S. Anglicans) in New Hampshire had elected their church's first openly gay bishop -- father of two Gene Robinson, who split from his wife to join his gay partner after acknowledging his homosexuality.

The stormclouds have since rolled across the Atlantic to Britain, where the Church of England announced the appointment of an openly gay clergyman, Jeffrey John, as assistant Bishop of Reading in the diocese of Oxford.

John said last Sunday he would not be taking up the post for fear of damaging the unity of the church.

But increasing openness towards gay clergy in the U.S. and Britain has triggered outrage among Anglicans elsewhere -- most notably in Nigeria, which boasts the world's largest Anglican congregation of some 17 million members.

It has severed ties with New Westminster and New Hampshire, described the U.S. appointment as a "Satanic attack on God's church" and hinted it might break from the Anglican communion if the trend towards acceptance of homosexuality continues.

Officially, sexual ethics are not up for discussion at the Synod, which opens on Friday and runs until Tuesday, but the issue is bound to be a hot topic.

"The evangelicals are going to try to raise it," said religious journalist and commentator Clifford Longley. "But it won't come to a sharp vote on the issue. It will come to a debate on the floor."

The Synod is due to debate the professional conduct of the clergy on Friday and state its views on embryo research on Sunday. Williams is to give his keynote address on Monday.

The Church of England holds two General Synods a year -- the first in York in July and the second in London in November.