Sex, sin and a divided faith

While Anglicans row over gays and female priests, the Catholics agonise over child abuse. The conseq

The two main Christian denominations of the UK - Anglicanism and Catholicism - are both under threat because of issues related to sex. Four decades after "sexual intercourse began/ . . . Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles' first LP", it threatens to plunge organised religion into turmoil.

When the Anglican Consultative Council met in Hong Kong last month, the primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, accused the Anglican leadership of a "new imperialism". This, he said, was expressed by a toleration of, even a proselytising for, female priests, gay clergy and same-sex unions. African Anglicans, he said, "feel that the global north still seeks to retain its disproportionate power and influence in our Church, just as in the world". He criticised "the ready assertion of superior wisdom".

The immediate cause of Akinola's speech was the decision by Bishop Michael Ingham, of the Canadian diocese of New Westminster, to approve his governing synod's decision to allow the blessing of same-sex unions. The background is a growing cultural distance between southern and northern churches. The leadership is generally northern, yet the entire growth of the Christian movements is located in the southern hemisphere.

Africa has 350 million Christians, comprising more than half its total population, and more Anglicans than Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the US combined. By 2050, it is likely that 70 per cent of Christians will be in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Many will be in evangelical and fundamentalist congregations, with highly illiberal views on the place of women (especially in the clergy) and on homosexuals, whom they generally regard as sinners by nature. The American historian Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom, published this spring, has said that "there is increasing tension between what one might call a northern liberal reformation and the surging southern religious revolution". Thus, a church whose missionaries once strove to bring civilisation and morality to the African continent now has a leadership seen by African Christians as uncivilised and immoral.

The tension will become much sharper next month, with the ordination of Rowan Williams, the present Bishop of Wales, as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams said in a recent interview that he had knowingly ordained a practising homosexual into the priesthood. It is an act viewed with horror not just by the majority of Anglicans overseas - but also by the increasingly vocal and well-financed traditionalists here, such as the evangelical Church Society, which dates back 170 years, and Reform, founded in the 1990s with opposition to women's ordination as its main plank. Figures from these organisations are calling for Williams's resignation before he even occupies Lambeth Palace.

Previous archbishops have tried to blur the sexual issues. Indeed, leadership of the Anglican Church in the past few decades has been like leadership of the Labour Party until the development of new Labour - a balancing act, in which liberals and conservatives are saved for the Church only at the expense of coherence.

But as head of the 70 million Anglicans worldwide, Williams will face, from the very large majority of his "electorate" (they don't actually elect him), the demand that he express opposition to the sexual preference of many of his priests - 20 per cent of all those with parishes in London, according to one estimation. One reason why the present Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, so opposed Williams's appointment was that he knew, from his close contacts with developing-world churches, how distant his successor would be from most of his flock.

Williams is an Anglo-Catholic who is far less agnostic than other near-agnostic Anglican divines, as Bishop John Robinson (of Honest to God), David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, and the former Archbishop Robert Runcie. Nevertheless, he is drawn to that element in the Church of England which tends towards a religiously inspired humanism, in which sexual choice is the individual's to make. He is in the position of some of the young Hegelians of the mid-19th century, seeking to mend - as Max Stirner put it - "the tearing apart of man into 'natural impulse' and 'conscience'". Modern church people don't see human beings as a bundle of natural impulses that must be curbed by conscience, or by theological precept - but the conservatives do.

The ordination of women, and their consecration as bishops, is the issue that attracts the most support from liberal secular opinion. It is the subject of affectionate comedy in The Vicar of Dibley, as played by the comedian Dawn French; and the village of Ambridge, home of The Archers, now has a female vicar. But secular liberals do not go to church and, when their ideas penetrate it, they create havoc.

Williams is said to favour not just female priests, but female bishops. If he sticks to his guns, a larger clash between liberals and traditionalists looms: a clash that can only result in further splits and losses to a church whose members number around 1.5 million, with only a million now attending services, even occasionally.

The head of the Catholic Church in Britain, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, also came to his supreme post with calls for his resignation preceding him - but, in his case, because he was accused of laxity in dealing with paedophiles in his diocese. This is the issue that threatens to tear the Catholic Church apart: how to suppress what may be the natural consequence of maintaining a male-only priesthood. In the UK, up to 1999, 212 priests were convicted of sexual offences against minors (other charges are pending); 63 more were investigated but never charged. Guidelines put out in 1994 were ignored to the point where a fresh initiative had to be approved in the Nolan review on child protection, which has set up a series of checks and vetting procedures at every level in the Church's hierarchy. The Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, John Ward, resigned because he - despite a warning from a fellow bishop - ordained a known paedophile.

The burgeoning scandals of paedophilia within the priesthood have hugely damaged the Catholic Church. In the US, this damage may progress to the point of terminal decline. The Church's reaction to the paedophilia scandals has been, at least until recently, one of denial and evasion.

Worst of all was the attempt, by senior clerics in the US, to excuse sexual abuse - which often included rape - if it were not too "bad". After a meeting in April between US cardinals and the Pope in the Vatican, a statement proposed that a priest should be removed if he "has become notorious and is guilty of repeated and aggressive sexual abuse of minors" - which sounds almost a licence for those who keep their activities quiet and don't indulge too often. A meeting of the 300 US bishops in Dallas in June amended this to a proposal that priests be pardoned if they had committed only one offence, long before. It reduced the Catholic Church to ridicule: the late-night talk show host Jay Leno sneered that the bishops were giving their priests "only one freebie, so I hope it was a cute one".

All bishops and cardinals look to Rome for their guidance; and Rome's guidance was to dissemble and to obstruct. The April statement was at least approved, if not dictated, by the Pope's advisers. Thus, action was left to Catholic lay people, who in the US have put priests under enormous pressure. One US Catholic activist, Margaret Steinfels, wrote that "a reservoir of trust among Catholics has run dry. This scandal has brought home to lay people how essentially powerless they are to affect the outcome - and virtually anything else to do with the Church." Gary Wills, the American Catholic writer who wrote an account of the Dallas conference, says "liberal Catholics have long been disappointed in [the Pope]. But now, even conservative Catholics know that something has gone terribly wrong with the Church."

Thus, both the major Christian denominations face crises - albeit very different ones - over how to handle issues of sexuality and gender. These are clashes within one "civilisation" - and they may yet tear it asunder.