PARIS (Reuters) - The spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans has said conservative Christians who cite the Bible to condemn homosexuality are misreading a key passage written by Saint Paul almost 2,000 years ago.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, addressing theology students in Toronto, said an oft-quoted passage in Paul's Epistle to the Romans meant to warn Christians not to be self-righteous when they see others fall into sin.
His comments were an unusually open rebuff to conservative bishops, many of them from Africa, who have been citing the Bible to demand that pro-gay Anglican majorities in the United States and Canada be reined in or forced out of the Communion.
"Many current ways of reading miss the actual direction of the passage," Williams said on Monday, according to a text of his speech posted on the Anglican Church of Canada's Web site.
"Paul is making a primary point not about homosexuality but about the delusions of the supposedly law-abiding."
The worldwide Anglican Communion is near breaking point over homosexuality, with conservative clerics insisting the Bible forbids gay bishops or blessings for same-sex unions. Its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church, named a gay bishop in 2003.
In fact, Williams also revealed on Tuesday that he had considered cancelling the Anglicans' once-a-decade 2008 Lambeth Conference, which has the potential to become a flashpoint over homosexuality.
"Yes, we've already been considering that and the answer is no," he told the Anglican Church of Canada's Anglican Journal.
"We've been looking at whether the timing is right, but if we wait for the ideal time, we will wait more than just 18 months."
In the passage of Romans that Williams referred to in Monday's speech, Paul said people who forgot God's words fell into sin. "Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion," Paul wrote.
Williams said these lines were "for the majority of modern readers the most important single text in Scripture on the subject of homosexuality." But right after that passage, Paul warns readers not to condemn those who ignore God's word.
"At whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself," wrote Paul, the first-century apostle whose epistles, or letters, to early Christian communities elaborated many Church teachings.
NEITHER SIDE WINS
Williams said reinterpreting Paul's epistle as a warning against smug self-righteousness rather than homosexuality would favour neither side over the other in the bitter struggle that threatens to plunge the Anglican Communion into schism.
It would not help pro-gay liberals, he said, because Paul and his readers clearly agreed that homosexuality was "as obviously immoral as idol worship or disobedience to parents."
This reading would also upset anti-gay conservatives, who have been "up to this point happily identifying with Paul's castigation of someone else," and challenge them to ask whether they were right to judge others, he added.
"This does nothing to settle the exegetical questions fiercely debated at the moment," Williams said.
But he said a "strictly theological reading of Scripture" would not allow a Christian to denounce others and not ask whether he or she were also somehow at fault.
Williams warned of the danger of schism.
"The Communion has to face the fact that there is a division in our Church and it's getting deeper and more bitter," he said. "If the Anglican Church divides, everyone will lose."
(Additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa)