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Jerusalem conference may widen Anglican rift

Church members, who are opposed to gay clergy and to what they consider liberal interpretation of scripture, are meeting to discuss the church's future.

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But the decision by the US Episcopal Church to consecrate Gene Robinson, a gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 has split the communion into two implacably opposed camps, centered broadly, but not exclusively, around the liberal leadership in the English, US, and Canadian churches and the "Global South," which includes the African provinces that have been the driving force behind GAFCON.

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Caught in the middle is Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is clearly struggling to reconcile the irreconcilable. He stopped short of inviting Bishop Robinson to Lambeth, but has invited those who consecrated him, triggering the boycott by bishops from Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, among others.

Matters were complicated by the revelation this week that two Anglican clergymen recently enjoyed a formal wedding blessing in an Anglican church in London, lifting the lid on the tacit "don't ask, don't tell" practice of offering church blessings to gay couples.

Archbishop Williams has taken a dim view of this, saying clergy are free to disagree with the church's teaching "but they are not at liberty simply to disregard it."

Opponents want a far clearer stance from the archbishop on the issue. "What we would long for from him is for him to be clear on which way he wants to go," says Rev. Paul Dawson of a traditionalist grouping called Reform. "Then people can make their minds up and say we agree with that, or not."

Bishop Dena says traditionalists have no problem with homosexuals in churches – as long as they are in the congregation. "What we are against is that if I admit I am an adulterer, I want to believe that my church will not accept me as a leader because adultery is sin. This is the same thing as gay."

GAFCON organizers say the argument is not about homosexuality, but about something far more important to Christians: the primacy of Scripture. The problem is that both sides are vociferously claiming Scripture in their favor.

"The commitment to Anglicanism is to Scripture and teaching, and those who are innovating these new practices are setting this aside," says Canon Chris Sugden, another of the GAFCON organizers.

But Giles Fraser counters: "It's not as if the conservatives have a monopoly on the claim to Scripture. That's why it is important that people sit down and debate this.

"It's incredibly immature of those who are staying away from Lambeth to make their point by their absence," he adds. "There have always been disagreements about how to interpret the Scripture. Ever since things have been written down, there have been disagreements on what they mean."

Breaking up would be hard

So why don't the GAFCON bishops just secede? One problem is that they are only united around the homosexuality issue. When it comes to the consecration of women bishops, another big issue looming for the church, GAFCON delegates will find it harder to agree.

Second, membership of a massive church like the Anglican communion does confer a certain stature that some would be loath to give up.

And third, secession brings with it all kinds of messy legal issues. Dozens of churches have left the US Episcopal Church in recent years to affiliate with conservatives in Africa and South America, raising questions – legal disputes even – over the status of their church property.

"It can get messy," says Mr. Dawson. "If you can avoid having to go through public legal battles then it's better to avoid it, which is why many people long to try and hold it together."

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