A Primates' Meeting was held in October 2003, to discuss how to respond to the controversial issues of the time: the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster had authorised a liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships and Gene Robinson, who openly admitted to being in a gay relationship, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire in the USA.

Disapproval of same-sex partnerships was strong in many places. Some church leaders shared it; others, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, were caught on the back foot because they had not expected such strength of feeling.

Behind the current controversy over same-sex partnerships lies a dispute between Puritan and Anglican ways to handle disagreement.

At the Reformation one of the central questions was how to interpret the Bible. Catholics and Protestants alike believed the Bible was the supreme authority, but they interpreted it differently. Catholics claimed that God had given the Church authority to interpret it. Protestants denied that it had that authority; so how did they interpret it? At first most Protestants argued that the Bible should not be interpreted at all, but should be accepted literally just as it is. In order to justify this idea they argued that every text in the Bible is easy to understand. This is where the rhetoric of 'the clear, plain teaching of the Bible' comes from.

Among Puritans this produced some distinctive ideas. One was that all Christians, at all times and places, are duty bound to obey all the commands in the Bible. In practice this is quite impossible: there are many hundreds of commands, plenty of which contradict each other, or would be quite impractical, or which we would now consider barbaric. Few today, for example, want to reintroduce slavery, or capital punishment for the huge range of offences listed in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Nevertheless some aimed to do just this. The Anabaptists are usually credited with making the strongest efforts, but even they eventually settled for the Sermon on the Mount. Their attempts seem absurd today; but they did not seem absurd at the time, because in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries very few people had a sense of historical change. They believed their society was much the same as that of the first Christians.

Those committed to accepting, uninterpreted, 'the clear, plain teaching of the Bible' were faced with a theoretical problem. They dutifully read the Bible and accepted what they took to be the clear, plain meanings; but their neighbours, equally committed and equally dutiful, disagreed about the meanings of some texts. Because their theory about the Bible did not allow for such disagreements, they all too often resorted to the only explanation available within their theory - that whereas they were being guided by the Holy Spirit to read the Bible correctly, their neighbours who understood it differently were in fact being guided by the Devil. Out of this conviction there developed a tradition of bitter sectarianism, with competing sects each claiming to uphold biblical truth against the others.

Many Puritans also held the principle that the Bible provided guidance on every aspect of the Christian's life. They therefore responded to every question by looking for a biblical answer. Once found, the answer was treated as divine guidance, and thus became another potential source of disagreement with those who had found different answers.

Those parts of Protestantism which inherited this set of ideas about the Bible have, since then, had a tragic history of sectarianism, with one bitter dispute after another causing churches to split. Time and time again a section of a congregation has denounced its minister for being untrue to the Bible and set about building a rival chapel across the road.

While most of Protestantism mellowed, that sectarian tradition still influences current debates. Firstly they made sure their own commitments were spelt out clearly in the foundation documents of their churches, and in many cases they are still there. Secondly in the nineteenth century religious revivals many felt their own church was too liberal, and responded by setting sail for new lands where they could found a church of their own. Some Anglican provinces today began in this way. This is why some of them have never represented the ethos of the Church of England.

Thirdly, the Puritan approach has proved attractive to many evangelicals reacting against the 'death of God' movement of the 1960s, with its simple appeals to 'the clear, plain teaching of the Bible' and refusal to tolerate diversity of opinion.

The new Puritanism is in reality very different from the old. Reformation Puritans believed in an unchanging world where the nation should be governed according to biblical principles, and set out to make it happen. They aimed to obey all the commands in the Bible, struggled, and eventually concluded that they could not. Their modern successors have much narrower aims. They inherit the rhetoric, focus on those biblical texts which suit their objectives, and endlessly cite them as Scripture's teaching while paying little or no attention to texts which do not suit their purposes.

If they succeed in changing the ethos of Anglicanism, so that it becomes more inclined to insist that everyone believes the same thing, the history of Puritan sectarianism shows all too clearly what will be in store: one schism after another. [More on homosexuality as a divisive issue].

Proponents of the Anglican Covenant argue that we need it because the Anglican Communion accepts that same-sex partnerships are immoral, and it therefore needs to distance itself from the churches of the USA and Canada which have formally rejected this teaching. But is this a valid argument?

Not as far as the actual Anglican situation and biblical texts are concerned. Another question is whether the immorality of same-sex partnerships is essential to Christian belief or a question on which we can agree to differ. The current debate often uses the Greek word adiaphora, 'indifferent things'.

It is generally agreed that throughout most of Christian history most church leaders have considered same-sex partnerships immoral. However the same can be said about a great many other things, like lending money at interest, which we today no longer consider immoral. In practice Christians have believed different things at different times.

So is there a way of distinguishing between the teachings we ought to accept in order to count as Christians, and the things on which we can agree to differ? If so, is there a longer list of things to accept in order to count as an Anglican?

In the current debate there has been much discussion of these questions. Two supporters of the Covenant are N T Wright and Andrew Goddard. Wright's Presidential Address of May 2010 discusses it at some length.  He accepts the distinction between essentials and adiaphora (things on which we may agree to differ) but argues that 'the question of whether a particular issue is adiaphora or not cannot itself be adiaphora'. From this he concludes that an international authority is needed to determine which issue comes under each heading. [A Modern Church response]

Goddard argues (in Chapman, Ed, The Anglican Covenant, Mowbray, 2008, pp. 56-57) against the view

that because Anglicanism has always been diverse and/or that it is inherently inclusive, it therefore follows that what has happened in North America cannot be judged wrong or un-Anglican. It therefore should not significantly alter relationships and structures within the Communion.

This is a good summary of the characteristic liberal approach. Goddard replies

My problem with this position is in part that it does not seem to make Scripture the authority against which our diversity must be weighed and tested. But it is also that it misses the key point at issue and lacks coherence as a response. It would appear to have to choose between two concrete outworkings of its emphasis on diversity. Either this view  refuses to set any limits at all to Anglican (or indeed Christian) identity, seeing diversity as infinitely elastic with no impact on Anglicanism's coherence or its unity. This is, in reality, a view that few if any really accept. Or its vision and principle of diversity is one which is selectively applied. It is used to justify 'acceptable' diversity (e.g. clergy in same-sex unions but not laity presiding at the Eucharist, or vice versa) but the fundamental question of how we discern as a Communion what is legitimate and what is illegitimate development is then left unanswered.

In these texts both Wright and Goddard accept a distinction between essentials  and adiaphora and look for an authority to establish it. Wright proposes  an international authority, a kind of Anglican pope (though not necessarily a single person). Goddard does two things. First he appeals to Scripture as the authority, but without offering any interpretative principles to justify such an emphasis on same-sex partnerships while ignoring the many hundreds of texts forbidding practices which are common today. This is a very frequent complaint by liberals about conservative evangelicals: they condemn some but by no means all of the actions  forbidden in the Bible, and do not provide a satisfactory principle of selection. [Puritans, sectarianism and the Bible]

Secondly, Goddard argues that the liberal position lacks a principle for distinguishing between essentials and adiaphora.  The problem here is that although he is absolutely right about this lack, he lacks it too. Appealing to Scripture's authority does not in fact produce any such principle, and even if he plumps for Wright's international authority he is only giving the problem to somebody else, not solving it.

So is there any principle at all to distinguish between the essentials of faith and adiaphora? This issue is as old as Protestantism: in the sixteenth century Richard Hooker argued against the Puritans about it. If we ask how, in practice, Christians have handled this question between then and now, we will not find any one principle dominating. Before the nineteenth century slavery debate, for example, nobody would have foreseen that such a large number of biblical texts, taking slavery for granted as part of society, would have been put to one side as a new moral norm emerged to became standard Christian belief. In practice each debate hears a range of voices, some appealing to biblical texts, some to contemporary experience, some to moral principles, some to what has been done before. This is what liberals would expect: different considerations each play their part in contributing to understanding. In this sense Hooker's 'three-legged stool' of scripture, reason and tradition summarises well how we handle most of our controversies: we have a range of considerations, none of them infallible, so the more the better. The history of church disputes and their resolutions provides no confidence that a predetermined conflict-resolving principle would have helped.

Wright and Goddard both want a predetermined system for resolving disagreements in the church. Furthermore they both want it to be a church system, something which owes nothing to the ordinary world outside Christian doctrines. There is no such system. The church is part of the world. Christian opinion on slavery changed because of stories about what it was like to be a slave, not because of biblical texts. After decades of disapproval Anglicans eventually decided that contraception was morally acceptable, not because of biblical texts or church dogma but because of their experiences of intimacy, experiences they shared with their non-Christian neighbours. The ethics of same-sex partnerships will eventually be resolved in the same way.

History therefore indicates that we should not expect to find a permanent principle for distinguishing between essentials and adiaphora.  Henry McAdoo puts it well when he declares (The Spirit of Anglicanism, p. 1) that Anglicans do not believe anything because it is Anglican, but only because they think it is true. Similarly, in all other fields of research it is recognised that the search for truth will fail if there are statements of fact which researchers are forbidden to challenge. If some things are considered so unquestionably true as to be off limits, three things go wrong. Firstly they may not be true in all circumstances, so the limits of their reliability need to be checked. Secondly, if the truth of them is closely examined it may lead to other truths. Thirdly, if we stop asking why something is true we shall forget what it means.

Which teachings are essential, and which are adiaphora, change over time. The changes are slow, but real. Even the doctrine of the Trinity took centuries to be established. What Christians believe today is nothing like what our predecessors believed in the Middle Ages. The distinction between them is not as hard and fast as the current generation of 'conservatives' would like.

This is a good thing: it means we are not trapped in our past. God permits us to ask new questions.

Many people are put off Christianity by its apparent obsession with policing other people's sex lives.

As often happens, moral attitudes in society change more quickly than the views of church leaders. The church then comes to seem old-fashioned. Many people can remember, before the debate about same-sex partnerships, equally intense debates about whether Christians should permit the remarriage of divorcees or the use of contraception.

Negative attitutes to sexuality have been known among Christians since the earliest days. The first indication is Paul's remark in 1 Corinthians 7:1 'Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: it is well for a man not to touch a woman.' As the original manuscripts do not contain punctuation marks, we cannot be sure that the second half of the sentence is Paul's quotation of what the Corinthian Christians believed, rather than his own belief; but in either case it provides evidence of a negative attitude to all sexual activity. The New Testament texts which mention same-sex activity only do so in lists of sins to be avoided;  it is not picked out as specially wicked.

By the fourth century the tradition had developed of believing all sexual activity immoral, so Jerome could declare that 'Marriage populates the world; virginity populates heaven'. Throughout the Middle Ages the dominant view was that monks and nuns, by being celibate, were better Christians than the married. Although gay sex was forbidden church leaders paid far more attention to married couples, forbidding all sex acts designed to avoid pregnancy or performed on Wednesdays, Fridays and other special days.

One of the distinctive events of the Reformation was Luther's encouraging monks and nuns to abandon their vows of celibacy and marry. The strongest argument in Luther's favour was that if everyone was celibate there would be no children. This argument set the scene for subsequent arguments that sexual activity was only justified for procreation.

During the twentieth century church leaders slowly accepted a more positive attitude to sexuality, whether or not children were wanted. However the Roman Catholic Church forbade the use of contraception in the 1967 Encyclical Humanae Vitae,  and that remains its official position today. Around the same time most Protestants came to accept it as morally permissible.

Throughout most of its history Christianity has put a lot of effort into debating sexual ethics. However, before the last 20 years same-sex activity has never been treated as an important issue, let alone serious enough to cause schism.

Many Anglicans, probably most, are suspicious of the campaigning, whether or not they approve of homosexuality.

Some find it disturbing that Christians seem so obsessed with sexual ethics. When we ask the campaigners why they are so determined to treat it as a matter for schism, we get two answers. The first is that it is contrary to scripture: that is, there are texts in the Bible which condemn it. The second is that the Church has formally declared homosexuality immoral and that therefore if you think it isn't, you can't be an Anglican.

One of the astonishing features of this controversy is that all the threats of schism, the consecrations of rival bishops, and the Anglican Covenant proposals, boil down to just these two arguments. If you come across any other arguments, please let us know.

Liberals are unconvinced on three counts: