Archbishop of Canterbury leaves on Africa trip after gays row

LONDON (AFP) - Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, left for west Africa on a seven-day pastoral trip to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Gambia.

The archbishop's office, Lambeth Palace, played down suggestions that the visit had anything to do with strong opposition in Africa to the appointment of a gay bishop, Canon Jeffrey John, in England.

Confronted with a bitter row over the move, and fears of a schism in the Anglican Church, the homosexual cleric later turned down his nomination.

Williams' visit "shouldn't be read as taking place in the context of current events, it's very much a long-planned trip," said a spokesman for the archbishop.

A row over gay clergymen culminated in John saying he would not take up the post of Bishop of Reading, west of London.

John, an Anglican clergyman who has had a male partner for 27 years, but says it is now a celibate relationship, turned down his nomination on July 6.

British newspapers suggested he had acted under pressure from the staff of the archbishop, who feared the appointment could spark a rift between the liberal and conservative wings of the church, which has 70 million adherents worldwide.

Williams' latest visit came at the invitation of the Primate of the Anglican Church in the province of west Africa, Robert Okine.

"I don't think he is" going with a specific message about the gay clergy row, a Lambeth Palace spokesman accompanying the archbishop on his trip told AFP.

"This is a provincial visit from the archbishop and would normally be focused on their situation and their concerns.

"They've been a bit overdue a visit," the spokesman said, adding that the last trip by an Archbishop of Canterbury to the region was in the 1980s and before that in the 1970s.

In Africa, many bishops have denounced homosexuality as an abomination. Peter Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria, where he leads some 17 million Christians, has already broken links with the New Westminster diocese in Canada which has blessed same-sex marriages.

Asked whether the issue of homosexual bishops was likely to come up during the visit, the archbishop's spokesman added: "We'll have to see when we get there what concerns they have and how they are expressed."

The first leg of Williams' trip will take him to Accra where he will attend a church service and meet the Ghanaian President John Kufuor on Thursday.

On Sunday the archbishop will address a rally in Sierra Leone at the national stadium in the capital Freetown.

Before his departure, Williams said in a letter to Church of England bishops that west Africa is suffering "most of the greatest wounds of our age".

Violent conflict, disease, instability and poverty afflict millions in the region, he added.