Archbishop of Canterbury: Anglican Church still 'struggling with reality' of marriage equality
Archbishop of Cantebury Justin Welby at the State House in Juba, South Sudan, on Jan. 30, 2014 [AFP]

Archbishop of Canterbury warns swift change in doctrine on issue risks alienating followers abroad, principally in Africa

The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested he is unable to bless same-sex marriages because taking such a step would endanger the global unity of Anglicanism by alienating members in developing countries who found the issue "impossible" to deal with.

While the Church of England is preparing to initiate a consultation on the possible introduction of informal blessing-like services, the spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans spoke of the dilemma he believes he faces and warned that a swift change in doctrine risked alienating followers abroad, principally in Africa.

"We are struggling with the reality that there are different groups around the place that the church can do -- or has done -- great harm to," Justin Welby said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, in which he also sought to express sympathy for calls for the church to bless gay marriages.

"You look at some of the gay, lesbian, LGBT groups in this country and around the world -- Africa included, actually -- and their experience of abuse, hatred, all kinds of things. We must both respond to what we've done in the past and listen to those voices extremely carefully. Listen with love and compassion and sorrow. And do what is possible to be done, which is not always a huge amount."

But he added: "At the same time, there are other groups in many parts of the world who are the victims of oppression and poverty, who we also have to listen to, and who find that issue an almost impossible one to deal with. How do you hold those two things [in balance] and do what is right and just by all? And not only by one group that you prefer and that is easier to deal with? That's not acceptable."

Tensions within the Anglicanism over same-sex marriage were once again brought into focus earlier this month when a Church of England chaplain became the first clergyman to enter a gay marriage.

The church's house of bishops' guidance, issued in February, explicitly bars such unions for clergy on the grounds they undermine traditional teaching that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. It also bars them from conducting gay marriages and from blessing them in church.

Nevertheless, Welby emphasised that he was placing his faith in the church's consultations, saying: "How you do something has to be thought through very carefully. That's why we get into the conversations, the thinking, which is what we are doing at the moment and which I don't want to pre-empt."

Welby spoke in the same interview about the very moving experience of being present earlier this year in a South Sudanese town in the aftermath of the massacre of Christians, where he was asked to consecrate the ground before the bodies of murdered clergy and others were placed into a mass grave. Despite facing such dangers, church leaders there were still eager to know what would happen in relation to clergy being asked to bless same-sex marriages in the wake of parliament's move last year to legalise gay marriage.

© Guardian News and Media 2014

[Image via Agence France-Presse]