Malawi church rejects pro-gay UK bishop

Blantyre, Malawi - The Anglican Church in Malawi has rejected the appointment of a liberal British vicar as one of the country's three bishops because of his support for gay rights, a church statement said on Friday.

In a further sign of the split between African and Western Anglicans over homosexuality, the Anglican Church of Central Africa said Nicholas Henderson's prior association with a pro-gay church group "made him unsuitable for confirmation."

The statement followed a special church court of confirmation, composed of bishops from Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, which considered a petition from church conservatives to block Henderson's elevation.

"The court declined to confirm Reverend Nicholas Henderson as bishop of the Lake Malawi diocese on grounds that ... (his) active association as general secretary of the Modern Church People's Union made him unsuitable for confirmation," the statement said.

The Anglican church in Malawi has close to 2 million followers and three dioceses.

Henderson is former chairman of the theologically liberal and pro-gay Modern Church People's Union. He was elected on July 29 to head the Anglican Lake Malawi diocese in the largely conservative African nation.

Archbishop Bernard Malango, who leads the Anglican church in central Africa, said Henderson's rejection was directly tied to his support for gay rights.

"I already informed him about his rejection yesterday and he is in a state of shock," Malango told Reuters, adding that he had also not supported Henderson's confirmation.

"The confirmation of Henderson as bishop would have violated the very foundation of the Anglican faith. We cannot support this because it is not compatible with our tradition and faith," he said.

African church leaders have strongly opposed moves by other Anglican groups to extend broader recognition to gay rights -- spurring fears that the world's second largest organized church after Roman Catholicism might split.

The row gained steam amid a worldwide controversy that engulfed the Anglican Communion following the appointment of gay U.S. bishop, Gene Robinson, and a Canadian decision to bless same-sex unions.

Henderson's supporters in Malawi argued 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.

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

"This sends a message to the rest of the world about our strong belief in one God who does not change," said the Rev. Geoffrey Mchinga, one of the clerics who petitioned to stop Henderson's confirmation.

Malango said the name of a new candidate bishop -- said by church sources to be an African -- had been raised. "It is true we have already identified someone else but I cannot confirm that name now," Malango said.