Malawians oppose bishop in Anglican gay split

Blantyre, Malawi - Conservative Anglicans in Malawi are trying to stop a liberal British vicar becoming a bishop there in the latest sign of a widening split in the worldwide Anglican communion over gay rights.

Steve Kafumba, a lawyer hired by the conservatives, said he had filed a challenge to the appointment of bishop-elect Nicholas Henderson with the Office of Archbishop Bernard Malango of Malawi, the church's senior leader in the country.

"Some church leaders and priests within the diocese want to stop the appointment of Henderson because one of the issues is his open support for the gay movement in the church," Kafumba told Reuters on Wednesday.

This is the first time the Anglican Church in Malawi has split over the election of a bishop, but the row mirrors a worldwide controversy that has engulfed the Anglican Communion following the appointment of gay U.S. Bishop Gene Robinson and a Canadian decision to bless same-sex unions.

Henderson, a former chairman of the theologically liberal and pro-gay Modern Church People's Union in Britain, was elected on July 29 to head the diocese in the largely conservative southern African nation.

His supporters have argued that he would help raise international funds for the church -- a role he has played for some time from his current position as a vicar in London.

Henderson's opponents however have argued strongly against the appointment, saying his "taboo" views, particularly on homosexuality, were out of step with Malawi's values.

Archbishop Malango said he had called for the Court of Confirmation, made up of bishops from the four African countries making up the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, to look at the petition and other complaints about the bishop-elect.

"We will have to look at them and see if there is any merit in the complaints," Malango told Reuters.

The bishops, from Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, are due to meet in Malawi's capital Lilongwe on September 3 to vote on Henderson's nomination to head the Anglican Lake Malawi Diocese.

Some Malawi church sources said the dispute threatened to derail the hearing, which had been expected to confirm Henderson's appointment.

Kafumba said he was asking the church to nullify the election of Henderson because of suspected flaws in the way he was nominated and elected by the electoral assembly of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian.

"The other compliant is that the electoral assembly of the Church twisted the formalities of the elections to suit Henderson," Kafumba said.

African church leaders have been vocal opponents of moves by other Anglican groups to extend broader recognition to gay rights -- spurring fears that the world's second largest organised church after Roman Catholicism might split.

Some Anglican priests in Malawi said they were determined to hold the line against the liberal values embodied by Henderson, saying it was key to the church's survival in Africa.

"The endorsement of Bishop Henderson would destroy the church in Africa and Malawi in particular because of our very conservative and cultural beliefs that consider gay as taboo," one Anglican priest, who asked for anonymity, told Reuters.