As Anglican Church picks new leader, gay marriage weighs heavily

The Anglican Church makes its final recommendation to government for a new Archbishop of Canterbury this week. Whoever gets the nod will have to resolve the church's split on gay marriage.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams greets worshippers to a religious service in Harare, Zimbabwe, in this 2011 file photo.

Looking back recently on a 10-year tenure marked by bitter conflicts between liberals and traditionalists, the leader of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion suggested that his job might really call for two people.

The remarks by Rowan Williams, who steps down in December as the Archbishop of Canterbury, were interpreted as signaling that the church was planning to appoint a ‘global president’ to relieve his successor of some of the burden of heading a communion said to encompass 85 million people.

But as the Church of England group tasked with finding a new leader meets for a third and final time this week before recommending a new leader, such talk has faded. Attention has turned to the shifting field of frontrunners and where they are perceived to stand on divisions that sometimes seemed about to rip Anglicanism apart.

While the question of female bishops remains fraught, there is little doubt that the most difficult issue that will be waiting on the desk of the new archbishop – who ultimately must be approved by the queen – will center on how the church views gays.

Crucially, the Church of England will tackle the issue in two reports in the next two years: one on civil partnerships, which were introduced by the British government in 2005 to give same-sex couples the same legal rights as married couples, and the other on the wider issue of human sexuality. Both are expected to come up with conservative-leaning recommendations, while the church is already at loggerheads with the government over new proposals to legalize gay marriage.

The church's current official line is to support "the way civil partnerships offer same-sex couples equal rights and responsibilities to married heterosexual couples." But it argues that government plans to open marriage to same-sex couples would confer few if any new legal rights on the part of those already in a civil partnership, and would require "multiple changes to law, with the definition of marriage having to change for everyone."
Introducing same-sex marriage could lead to the church being forced out of its role of conducting weddings on behalf of the state, according to an official response published in June by the Church of England, which is established in UK law as the state church.

Against this backdrop, moderate conservatives inside the church yearn for a steady hand on the tiller but also for one not afraid of taking on what they perceive as two extremes.

“It’s all just going to explode, really, and you will need someone at the helm who is going to say: ‘Look, this is what we believe and so to now go down a different route isn’t going to work, and either you join our party and play properly or else this isn’t going to work,” said Peter Ould, a priest and conservative commentator on issues around the Church of England and sexuality.

Going into the "race" earlier this year, the three front-runners were thought to be Christopher Cocksworth, the Bishop of Coventry; Graham James, the Bishop of Norwich; and John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York.

Of them, Bishops Cocksworth and James have been characterized as competent managers rather than figures likely to chart a radical new course for the Church, perhaps just the type of safe pairs of hands favored by many wanting to keep a lid on divisions.

Archbishop Sentamu, the second most senior cleric in the Church of England and one with a compelling "backstory" as a Ugandan magistrate who fled to the UK from the regime of Idi Amin, has emerged as a standard bearer for many conservatives.

His media profile has been high due to his penchant for the grand gesture, such as his use of a pair of scissors to cut up his clerical collar during a live television interview, while pledging not to replace it until Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe was out of office. 

“In some ways, he's God's gift to the Daily Mail: a black asylum seeker who doesn't find English patriotism shameful or vulgar and who regards gay marriage as akin to something imposed by dictatorships,” wrote Andrew Brown, a religious commentator in the Guardian, name-checking the influential mass-market right-wing Daily Mail newspaper.

However, even within the ranks of some Anglican conservatives, there are concerns about Sentamu's perceived authoritarian style, and recent reports have suggested that another cleric with an unconventional background is being promoted by the influential conservative evangelical movement.

Justin Welby, a former oil company executive whose spiritual turning point came after he lost his baby daughter in a car crash, is being increasingly mentioned, despite only being Bishop of Durham since last year, 19 years after his ordination as a priest.

Liberals such as Colin Coward say that Bishop Welby is “the least contaminated” by what the Rev. Coward says is an ethos that has prevented members of the hierarchy from making decisions incongruent with their individual beliefs. But he admits to being pessimistic that anyone can emerge from the church’s upper echelons “with the courage to do what is needed” in terms of sexuality and the broader role of the Church in the 21st century.

“Conservative groups on both the Anglo-Catholic and the conservative evangelical side have trapped Rowan Williams and the church in a very literal mode of Christianity, and the majority of people I meet inside the church and certainly outside have moved way beyond that,” says Coward, director of Changing Attitude, a campaign group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people inside the church.

While he believes that the increasingly conservative control over the church have placed it on “a path to irrelevance,” he does not expect a schism. But, he adds, the church will have to face up to the question of equal marriage “one way or the other,” largely due to government moves.

Both Welby and Sentamu are spoken highly of by Stephen Kuhrt, a vicar and member of Anglican think tank Fulcrum, which sets out to represent Anglicanism’s evangelical center and is conservative-leaning on issues such as homosexuality.  

“Whoever becomes the Archbishop of Canterbury will need to have the wisdom to hold the Anglican Communion, and particularly the center right and the center left, together on the issue of homosexuality, rather than allowing those who are the two extremes on that issue to pull the communion apart,” he says.

Mr. Kuhrt suggests that the new man may well choose to continue with the approach pioneered by Archbishop Williams, that of seeking agreement on an Anglican “covenant.” A previous such unity plan was rejected by many from liberal and conservative wings of the church.  

“What will be needed is the right blend of wisdom and toughness. Rowan Williams has not always been as tough as he could be, so it might be that another archbishop may need to be slightly tougher,” adds Kuhrt.

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