Britain's gay Anglican priests fear to speak out

Monday, October 13, 2003

LONDON-- The Rev. David Page is a gay priest and says there are many like him ministering to Church of England parishes in London.

But at a time when bitter divisions over homosexuality threaten to split the worldwide Anglican Communion, he's one of the rare gay clerics who feel confident enough to speak up.

"Many don't want to compromise the development of their ministry by declaring themselves gay and with partners," said Page, vicar of St. Barnabas, Clapham Common in south London. To win promotion or ever become a bishop they realize "having to be quiet is the price I have to pay."

The U.S. Episcopal Church's decision in August to confirm a gay man with a longtime partner -- the Rev. V. Gene Robinson -- as bishop of New Hampshire provoked a crisis within Anglicanism and focused attention on homosexual clerics.

Conservative opponents of Robinson in the United States warned at a rally last week that a break with the Episcopal Church is a strong possibility, and their protests are emphatically backed by the leaders of other Anglican national churches, particularly in Africa.

Simmering issue

The primate of Nigeria, the Most Rev. Peter Akinola, said in a recent commentary in the Church Times newspaper that homosexuality "is a flagrant disobedience to God."

The issue has been simmering since Rowan Williams was appointed last year as archbishop of Canterbury, the titular head of the 77 million-member global Anglican Communion -- the churches that trace their roots to the Church of England.

Williams personally sympathizes with the gay cause, and as archbishop of Wales he ordained a priest he knew was a homosexual. But as leader of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, Williams has affirmed the line taken by bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference "rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture."

He has called an emergency meeting of the 38 primates, or leaders, of the world's Anglican churches in London on Wednesday and Thursday, looking for a way to bridge differences that many regard as irreconcilable.

The Church of England had its own crisis over the issue this year when the Rev. Canon Jeffrey John was nominated as bishop of Reading. John has been honest about his sexual orientation, but affirmed that he was now celibate.

Although Williams defended the appointment, some conservative evangelicals reacted furiously -- and John decided to stay where he was, working as a theologian at London's Southwark Cathedral on the south bank of the River Thames.

Outspoken support

Southwark has a reputation as one of the Church of England's most liberal dioceses, and the cathedral's dean, the Rev. Colin Slee, was outspoken in support of John.

He said John's appointment didn't violate church policy that says practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained priests. Slee also questioned how traditionalists can condemn homosexuality, which he argues is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, while ignoring its clear message about divorce.

"It's actually the evangelical part of the Anglican church who've always been very loose and flexible about tolerating divorce and second marriage, which is clearly condemned in the Bible, and yet they draw the line about homosexual relationships," he said.

Conservative evangelicals believe the Bible is clear.

God created "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," says the Rev. David Banting. He is chairman of Reform, a national evangelical group that believes homosexuality is evil.

"The Bible can't be ignored on this issue as out of touch despite the modernist, liberal, revisionist tendencies within the church," said Banting, who is based in Exeter in western England.

In the past, church leaders have chosen to ignore the issue. Slee believes this attitude of "don't ask, don't tell" puts tremendous pressure on gay priests, many of whom work in inner-city areas often shunned by priests with families because of high crime rates and poor schools.

Page, 55, has been at St. Barnabas since 1991, living alone at the vicarage in Lavender Gardens. He serves an economically diverse, racially mixed parish, and believes his outspokenness means he won't be offered any other position.

"I tell the leading members of the congregation that I'm gay and active in politics. Other people come to know. The word gets around. Others sort of know," he said.

"I challenge the bishops to devise a process where it is safe to speak for ourselves."


On the Net:

Anglican Communion: http://www.anglicancommunion.org

Lesbian and Gay Christians: http://www.lgcm.org.uk

Reform: http://www.reform.org.uk

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