Church of England leaders issued a plea Wednesday for more understanding and less acrimony in the divisive debate over homosexuality in the church. The church's governing general synod endorsed a report by bishops calling for "interpretive charity" between reformers and conservatives--and a balancing of biblical teaching with social reality--in the debate that is threatening to split the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion.
"Christian tradition is dynamic and not static," said the Right Reverend Richard Harries, bishop of Oxford, who introduced the report to the synod's thrice-yearly meeting at Church House in London. The report, "Some Issues in Human Sexuality," calls itself "a guide to the debate" about the church's attitude to homosexuality and stops short of advocating changes in church policy. Compiled by Harries and three other bishops after several years of research and consultation, the report says the divisive debate on sexuality will not go away and urges Christians to remember that "real people really do have homosexual and bisexual desires."
Divisions within the Anglican Church about homosexuality exploded after the appointment of an openly gay bishop, the Reverend V. Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire last November. Conservatives in the Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of the Anglican Church, launched a new organization that plans to defy church leaders and may well wrestle with them for control of parishes and dioceses. It has gained support from church leaders in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the Anglican communion, has appointed a commission to study the crisis. He conceded Monday that the commission, expected to report next year, faced "an exceptionally difficult and delicate task." The church's official line, taken by bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, rejects homosexual practice as "incompatible with Scripture." Harries said that while religious scholars agreed on the Bible's disapproval of homosexual behavior, "debate about the interpretation of biblical texts has to be understood in the wider context of the societal shifts that have caused attitudes towards sexuality and sexual behavior to change in the modern era."
Brian McHenry, a lay synod member from London, said the church was "perceived by many to be homophobic, hypocritical, and discriminating." Saying neither side in the debate was likely to prevail, he called for "legitimate diversity" within the church.
But deep-rooted differences remain between reformers and conservatives. The Reverend David Banting, chairman of the church's evangelical Reform group and an advocate of strict adherence to the Bible, blamed "widespread disturbance and even schism" on pro-gay members of the church. "I cannot be enthusiastic about a debate that seeks to change church teaching," he said, arguing that biblical revisionism "is a bit like playing a game of Scrabble and saying that the dictionary is important for the way the game is played as a legitimate authority, but then never actually using it in practice."
The Reverend Richard Kirker, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement, said the sexuality document was "very deficient." "No self-respecting gay or lesbian person has put their name to it. It talks to, rather than with or about, gay people, in any meaningful sense," Kirker told BBC radio on Wednesday. The synod voted to recommend the sexuality report to church members "for study and reflection." Delegates rejected amendments that would have strengthened the report to "recognize that faithful Anglican Christians hold differing views on the issues of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexualism."
Last year Canon Jeffrey John, a gay but celibate clergyman, was appointed bishop of Reading in England, but withdrew in the face of protests. That controversy was soon overshadowed by the appointment of Robinson, who has a male partner.