LONDON -- For years the Church of England has been racked by an internal debate over homosexuality: Is it morally reprehensible and a cause for repentance? Or is it acceptable and, when accompanied by love and fidelity, as positive a form of human expression as heterosexuality?
Last week the debate exploded into the public arena as the bishop of London, the church's third most senior cleric, revealed that he had been pressed by a militant gay rights group to proclaim himself a homosexual "voluntarily."
Instead the Rt. Rev. David Hope held a news conference Monday to condemn the tactics of the group trying to pressure him. He said that his sexuality was "ambiguous" and that he was celibate.
His stand drew praise from the church's highest authority, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. George Carey, who also issued aspecial plea for tolerance.
"We reject homophobia in any form," the archbishop said at a news conference Thursday. "Homosexuals must be treated as people made in the image and likeness of God."
The issue reverberated beyond the Church of England. For this was the week that leaders of the Anglican Communion, representing some 70 million worshipers in 35 self-governing churches in 164 countries, were meeting near London.
Once every three years the 36 Anglican primates convene for mutual support and consultation. This year the issue of human sexuality and the churches' traditional biblical condemnation of sex outside the bounds of matrimony -- and homosexual sex in particular -- was high on the agenda.
At the end of the conference, the primates released a pastoral letter, which called for a full but reasoned debate on the whole issue of human sexuality.
The letter contained language suggesting that at least some church leaders were prepared to consider a new and less traditional definition of morality. It said at one point, "We are conscious that, within the church itself, there are those whose pattern of sexual expression is at variance with the received Christian moral tradition, but whose lives in other respects demonstrate the marks of genuine Christian character."
What pushed the Church of England's attitude toward homosexuality onto the front pages was Bishop Hope's disclosure that a group called OutRage! had threatened to go public with an allegation that he was gay unless he himself did so.
At his news conference, Bishop Hope released the text of a letter handed to him in January by OutRage founder Peter Tatchell. It said he should proclaim himself a homosexual "voluntarily" so that he could speak out for "the millions of lesbian and gay people who are victimized by our homophobic society, often with the collusion of the church."