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Lodging for spouses becomes Anglicans’ latest battleground over LGBT clergy

A university that customarily offers hospitality to convening clergy is bucking the archbishop of Canterbury's attempt to ban same-sex spouses of gay and lesbian bishops.

Bishops prepare for a group photo during the 2008 Lambeth Conference at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Photo by Scott Gunn/ACNS

LONDON (RNS) — A British university that customarily houses those attending the Anglican Communion’s worldwide gathering of bishops is welcoming same-sex clergy couples to stay on campus despite the archbishop of Canterbury’s attempt to ban gay and lesbian bishops’ spouses from the 2020 Lambeth Conference.

For years the issue of homosexuality and how the Church of England treats gay people has haunted the church and the wider Anglican Communion, causing a rift with African bishops who consider the church too liberal and distressing LGBT people who think the church is discriminatory and prejudiced against them.

Then, in February, the secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, explained in a blog post that, because of the communion’s position that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, same-sex spouses would not be invited to the decennial church conference in 2020.

Idowu-Fearon’s announcement reflected a decision by Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury and the communion’s traditional leader, that the same-sex partners of those participating in the conference will not be welcome – while heterosexual ones will be accommodated. A predictable furor arose from Western bishops and other Anglicans.

RELATED: Episcopal bishops object to same-sex spouses’ disinvitation to global conference

The conference, which costs about $6,500 (4,950 pounds) per person to attend, attracts delegates from across the globe to discuss issues of the day. Its resolution holds no legislative sway but influences moral and spiritual views within the communion. It is always held in Canterbury, despite its name, and the nearest place that can hold the gathering and provide enough residential space is the campus of the University of Kent, which has hosted Lambeth since 1978.

The university agreed at first to house the clergy despite Welby’s decision, citing a stipulation in the British Equality Act that bans discrimination on sexuality but allows it for religious organizations. But the university changed its stance after Bishop Kevin Robertson of Toronto was told that his husband, Mohan Sharma, could not attend the conference, and accused the archbishop of Canterbury of bowing to homophobia.

Robertson’s fellow Toronto bishops also issued a statement calling the ban troubling. (Two other bishops, both Americans, have been affected by the ban as well.)

Kent University’s student union has objected as well, saying in a statement that exclusion of same-sex spouses “is not a value that we expect to see on campus and we are committed to championing inclusivity in all events.” Protests from students and staff followed.

Last week the university met with communion officials to raise its  “significant ethical concerns” after university Vice Chancellor Karen Cox and council chair David Warren said they had “serious issues,” calling the no-same-sex-spouses policy “contrary to the values” of the university.

Both sides are refusing to divulge what the outcome of the meeting was, but the university has now pledged to make accommodation available to spouses who want to be based in Canterbury with their partners for the duration of the Lambeth Conference — a move that will focus attention even more intensely on the Anglican Communion’s policy of exclusion.

Anglican Communion spokesman Gavin Drake said the Lambeth Conference would go ahead at Kent University in 2020, and he added: “We are not speaking about this issue at all. What Kent does is up to them.”

The row comes 11 years after Gene Robinson, an openly gay U.S. bishop, was banned from the Lambeth Conference but traveled to Canterbury to appear there anyway while traditionalists stayed away from the event in protest at what they saw as the Anglican Communion’s liberal stance on homosexuality.

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