Anglican church leaders from around the world have begun a two-day conference at Lambeth palace, to try and resolve differences over the issue of homosexuality. Conservatives and liberals in the Church are deeply divided, with some Anglicans threatening to leave and form their own church.
The BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, Martha Doyle, looks at the issues that are being debated by the bishops in London.
Where does Rowan Williams stand in this on-going row?
Rowan Williams’ private thoughts on this subject are far more liberal than the official Church position, which is that senior clergy should not ordain actively homosexual clergy, and that homosexuality itself is incompatible with Anglicanism.
However, the Canadian Diocese of Westminster has already gone ahead and started blessing same-sex unions. The world wide Anglican Dioceses are autonomous from Lambeth Palace, which means that, even if he wanted to, Rowan Williams cannot ask or order any part of the Church to leave.
Is it likely that the Church will split?
All the parties attending this two-day conference will be working hard to ensure that no split occurs, but many Anglicans have made it clear that they will not be part of a church which is headed by gay bishops.
So many of these conservatives are actively considering leaving the Church in order, as they believe, to stay true to the Bible’s teaching. At the moment it is a threat which is being taken very seriously.
What would the practical consequences of any schism be?
As well as deeply dismaying the liberal wing of the Church, the effects of any split would be enormous, because it is not just theological beliefs that are at stake. The Church has huge commercial assets around the world, and these would probably be the subject of immense legal wrangles by both sides.
But one very serious possible outcome would be that parishes that were part of a diocese that did not reflect their views – for example, a conservative church in a larger liberal diocese-may ask to be ministered to by a like-minded bishop. This development first happened in the row over women priests, when so-called “flying bishops” took care of parishes that disagreed with their diocesan bishop.
When will we know the outcome of the meeting?
A statement will be released on Thursday evening when the conference draws to a close. It is unlikely that the bishops will speak to the media before then. But the official statement may not signal the end of the matter.
The Archbishop of Canterbury may decide to commission an investigation into the subject of sexuality, something that the Archbishop of Cape Town has also called for. Conservatives in the Church will try and avoid this at all costs; they do not want a long, drawn out debate on homosexuality, they want a firm decision now.
Can we expect to see the issue resolved by the end of the conference?
We do not yet know what the outcome will be, but it is well known that there is overwhelming demand from the conservatives in the Church for the Diocese of New Hampshire – which elected the openly-gay Gene Robinson as bishop in August – to be censured. If this happens, it would mean in effect that the clergy of New Hampshire would be barred from attending Anglican conferences and meetings.
Why is there a fuss over gay bishops and not gay priests?
The conservatives in the Church are not willing to tolerate homosexuality at any level in the Church.
But it is only recently that priests have started to come out of the closet, and declare their homosexuality openly.
Electing an openly gay bishop attracted lots of publicity, but most of the gay priests have kept their heads down – until now.
So the conservatives did not feel it necessary to openly push the issue while the issue among priests was relatively quiet.
But the proposal for electing Canon Jeffrey John changed all that.