New archbishop of Canterbury caught up in controversy over homosexuality

Posted: Friday, November 08, 2002

LONDON (AP) -- He has not even been enthroned as leader of the Church of England yet, but the next archbishop of Canterbury already is caught in a conflict -- between what he believes and what the Anglican Communion teaches on homosexuality.

On Feb. 27, Rowan Williams assumes his post as the new spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans. He'll be taking over for Archbishop George Carey, who retired last week.

Conservative evangelicals haven't waited for William's official installation to go after him on the issue of sexuality. They have demanded he affirm traditional church teaching, which forbids sex outside of marriage, and that he promise not to ordain those who fail to conform.

Williams, now the Anglican archbishop of Wales, has ordained a man he knew was in a homosexual partnership.

''I can and I do state what is the majority teaching of the church, as I am bound to do. But I can't go beyond this and say that I believe what I do not believe,'' Williams said in a letter to Reform, a conservative evangelical group which pressed him to give up the Canterbury post.

That doesn't satisfy the Rev. William Taylor, rector of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, a lively evangelical parish in central London.

''It is impossible for a person to believe one thing personally and to act out another as an officer of the church, exercising discipline against people who believe the same thing as you and whom you have encouraged into ministry,'' Taylor says.

In a symbol of protest to distance the parish from Williams, St. Helen's is refusing to accept funds from the Church of England to pay clergy salaries, which are ordinarily paid from central funds.

Williams anticipated problems. On July 23, the day his appointment was announced, he wrote to primates of other Anglican national churches saying that the archbishop ''does not have the freedom to prescribe belief for the Church at large.''

''I have indeed in the past written briefly on the subject of theology and sexuality, and hope that what I have written has contributed to the continuing discussion; but my ideas have no authority beyond that of an individual theologian,'' Williams said.

Williams confirmed in an interview published by The Daily Telegraph in July that he had ordained a priest he knew was living in a homosexual partnership.

''On homosexuality -- a very tricky issue -- I start with nil credibility with the evangelicals,'' he was quoted as saying. ''My theological conviction is that there is a good case for recognition of same-sex partnerships if they are stable and faithful. I would not, however, call it marriage.''

Evangelicals can hardly have been cheered by the effusive welcome Williams received from the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

''Nothing will change overnight but we are confident that his appointment heralds a new era for the church,'' said the Rev. Richard Kirker, the group's general secretary.

Homosexuality was a big issue at the 1998 Lambeth conference, a gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world.

As archbishop of Canterbury, and thus leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Williams has said he would enforce a Lambeth resolution condemning homosexual relations as ''incompatible with Scripture'' and opposing the blessing of same-sex unions and sex outside of marriage.

The resolution was adopted after one of the hottest debates at the conference, and the issue has continued to fuel tensions within Anglicanism.

It was one of the issues which led to the defrocking of a traditionalist Episcopal priest in Pennsylvania, who complained that the church has become too liberal on issues such as ordaining women and recognizing same-sex unions.

And Carey recently expressed concern about the decision by the New Westminster diocese in western Canada to bless same-sex unions.

The gay issue -- or at least its importance -- also divides evangelicals.

''Dr. Williams' fan club is heavily infiltrated by feminist and gay activists, who have a very clear agenda for the kind of change in the church which they wish to bring about,'' Gerald Bray wrote in Churchman, the quarterly journal of the Church Society. Bray is Anglican professor of divinity at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

''In the normal course of events, Dr. Williams may be with us until 2020, long enough to see a number of women bishops in post, and long enough for the opposition to the ministry of practicing homosexuals to have withered away,'' Bray wrote, calling on evangelicals to fight back.

The Rev. Francis Bridger, principal of Trinity College in Bristol, England, wrote in The Church of England Newspaper that Williams ''has been judged and found wanting not because he is unsound on the historic creeds but because he holds a particular personal view on a single ethical issue.''

But the challenge for his fellow evangelicals, Bridger said, is to hold the church together while maintaining their integrity.

''This will require humility, charity and respect. Humility requires us to be willing to acknowledge that we might, just possibly, be mistaken and that not everyone but us is wrong,'' he said.


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