New Archbishop of Canterbury Faces Gathering Storm

By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online

[caption id="attachment_2821" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Archbishop Rowan Williams"]Archbishop Rowan Williams[/caption]

As George Carey retires as the Archbishop of Canterbury, there are difficult times ahead for successor Rowan Williams.

The Church of England is heading for a bitter row over whether lesbian and gay Christians can expect it to accept them. It has spent the last decade trying to come to terms with its decision to ordain women priests.

Signs that women are slowly winning acceptance as priests suggest that debate is subsiding.

But the far fiercer row over homosexuality threatens to split the church apart.

Stern line

The Church of England's teaching essentially sets one standard for ordinary church members and another for the clergy.

Officially, it reluctantly tolerates homosexuality among ordinary members, even though many Anglicans regard it as at least inferior to heterosexuality, and an increasingly vocal group condemns it as outright sinful.

But the clergy have to toe a sterner line. Lesbian and gay Anglicans can be priests, but they are not allowed to live with their partners, because the church says it requires "a different standard" from them.

Choice or accident

Bishops are supposed not to ordain practising or known gay and lesbian clergy, though some simply do not inquire into the sexual behaviour of those seeking ordination.

For many years the church turned a blind eye to what happened in clerical bedrooms, but the powerful people in the church now are those who tend to interpret the Bible rigorously, as a clear guide to right conduct today.

Put simply, most of them think gay and lesbian people are sinful, and should repent. They tell them either to give up any sexual activity, or to live as faithfully monogamous heterosexuals.

Many Anglicans, though, say sexual preferences are usually a matter of Nature, not choice, and that you might as well tell someone not to have red hair as try to argue them out of (or into) homosexuality.

George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury since 1990, has just about managed to hold the church together on the issue, but he retired this week to be succeeded by Dr Williams, presently Archbishop of Wales.

'Errors' detected

Dr Williams has acknowledged that he has ordained a gay man as a priest. And the Bible group do not like it at all.

George Carey's retirement leaves unresolved problems

Some are threatening unspecified "direct action". A spokesman for one leading group, Reform, told BBC News Online it was not looking for confrontation, but it did not welcome Dr Williams' appointment.

"It seems to us that Rowan Williams does have strange opinions," he said. " As we study his writings more thoroughly, they appear increasingly strange and more erroneous than we first imagined."

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) has high hopes of the new archbishop. It told BBC News Online: "We are convinced that the next decade will see the church take a real shift away from anti-gay hysteria.

Sex above all?

"That is the only course it can afford to take if it is to avoid a self-destructive path towards contempt and even greater irrelevance."

Dr Williams must be wondering what chance he has of keeping the Church of England intact, and of preventing a split in the 70 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, which he will also lead.

And many outside the church may be asking what is so special about human sexuality, of any description, that Christians must obey the Bible's teaching there, but not - for example - on war and poverty.