The credibility of the Anglican church was being threatened by its public brawl over homosexuality, the church’s worldwide leader Archbishop Rowan Williams claimed this week.

Williams was speaking in response to threats by the Archbishop of Nigeria to secede from the worldwide Anglican communion if the consecration of openly gay Jeffrey Johns as bishop goes ahead.

It would be a tragedy if these issues -¦ occupied so much energy that we lost our focus on the priorities of our mission -¦ The concentration on this in recent weeks has had the effect of generating real incomprehension in much of our society, in a way that does nothing for our credibility, Williams wrote in a letter to fellow bishops.

Williams indicated he intended to go ahead with the consecration of Johns at Westminster cathedral in October.

Sydney’s Archbishop Peter Jensen also bought into the controversy with strong statements. Speaking in London Jensen said Williams had underestimated the strength of the opposition to [the appointment of Johns] and the horror about it through the world.

However, Jensen was quick to pull fellow bishop Glenn Davies into line when Davies suggested Williams would be banned from preaching in the diocese of Sydney unless he opposed the appointment. Although this would be a logical move, Jensen said, for the sake of the unity of the church it won’t be done.

There is also dissent in the prospective bishop’s own diocese with some clergy threatening to break ties if the appointment proceeds. The English church is divided over the issue with nine bishops having signed a letter opposing Johns’s appointment while eight have voiced support.

The issue of Johns’s appointment is only part of the furore with loud dissent also being voiced over the election of another gay man as bishop of New Hampshire and the Canadian diocese of New Westminster’s authorisation of gay marriage services.

In an embarrassing move for the church, the Sunday Times reported last week there were at least two other bishops who were known to be gay. Although the Sunday Times did not name the bishops, it quoted church sources who confirmed gays held positions throughout the church’s hierarchy, including two bishops who were appointed in the 1990s.

In a press statement, gay human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who gained widespread media attention for his outing of Anglican bishops in the 1990s, claimed the second most senior bishop in the worldwide communion, the Archbishop of York, David Hope, was one of the gay bishops.

Quoting a 1995 statement by Hope that his sexuality was a grey area, Tatchell claimed Hope was gay.

Grey being a mixture of black and white, this wording was a tacit admission that his sexuality was at least in part homosexual, Tatchell said.

At the time of that statement Hope did not deny being gay, and merely stated that he sought to lead a single, celibate life. Tatchell pointed out this week seeking to lead such a life, and actually living it, are not always the same thing.

It is notable that the archbishop did not say: -˜I have never had sexual relations with a man.’ Based on information from someone who has known the archbishop for many years, I believe he is gay and that he had a gay relationship while he was bishop of London, Tatchell said.

Tatchell called on Hope to clarify his sexuality and on church leaders to end their hypocrisy and double standards.

There seems to be one moral standard for the second most senior figure in the Anglican Church and another for lower level clergy like Canon Johns.

I urge the archbishop to follow Canon Johns’s example of openness and honesty, Tatchell said.

The controversy over homosexuality has been a live one in the Anglican church since the 1988 Lambeth worldwide conference of bishops set up a sub-committee to examine the issue. In 1991 the committee issued an ambiguous report Issues In Human Sexuality. Although containing some supportive statements about lay people in faithful gay and lesbian relationships, the report explicitly ruled out the option of sexually active gay clergy and failed to come down one way or the other on the fundamental question of the morality of sexual practice. Subsequent Lambeth meetings and sub-committees have failed to reach any further consensus.

All sides in the current debate are appealing to the 1991 report to bolster their position. Both Johns and Williams claim adherence to the report with Johns issuing a statement that his long-term gay relationship is no longer a sexually active one. Their opponents are claiming the appointment is an attempt to change the church’s position by stealth.

However, a number of the authors of the Issues report have subsequently disowned it. A London Church Times article, which examined the effect of the report on its 10th anniversary, was entitled: Ten Years Spent Avoiding The Issues.

It’s the closest the bishops get to a mantra. Ask almost any of them what his views are about homosexuality, and the response is a rehearsed and collegiate: I stand by Issues In Human Sexuality. In letters to clergy following an interview with a bishop, the mantra takes on a form such as: -˜In our meeting you assured me that within the parameters of Issues In Human Sexuality your personal lifestyle should cause me no concern. Perhaps you could write confirming that this is so,’ the Church Times wrote.

In a subsequent issue Michael Bourke, bishop of Wolverhampton, put it even more strongly.

Issues has been presented as a consensus to which all bishops are expected to subscribe. Instead of enabling open and charitable discussion, it has served as an instrument of management and control.

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