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Two Worlds Collide in Anglican Church

Times Staff Writers

By confirming an openly gay priest as a bishop for the first time last week, the Episcopal Church set off shock waves of discord that are being felt as far away as Africa.

Episcopalians meeting in Minneapolis confirmed the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire and gave tacit approval to local bishops to allow marriage-like blessings for gay and lesbian couples.

Robinson is strongly supported by his parishioners and confirmed by a majority of the delegates from the national church. However, his elevation angered church conservatives in the United States and sparked even greater fury in the parts of Africa that are in worldwide Anglican Communion.

“They have chosen the path of deviation from the ‘historic faith’ once delivered to the saints,” the Most Rev. Peter Akinola, head of the church in Nigeria, said in a letter. With 17.5 million believers, his is the largest Anglican province in the world. Akinola went on to say that the controversy “compels us ... to think of the nature of our future relationship” with the Episcopal Church of the United States, a not-so-veiled threat about schism.

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Archbishop of Uganda Henry Orombi announced last week that his church -- which represents nearly 8 million Anglicans -- would sever relations with the U.S. dioceses that supported Robinson’s election. In Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe, African church leaders have roundly criticized the American bishops.

Such criticism is a twist on the usual relations between the first and third worlds, in which the West remains dominant even in the post-colonial era. Once a key institution in helping Britain build and run its empire, the Anglican Church is now English only in name. With 70 million adherents, church membership has reached a plateau or fallen in the Western churches while growing in Africa and the rest of the Third World. That has enabled the new provinces to force the richer, more liberal churches in the West to reckon with a more conservative interpretation of the Gospel.

“The American influence is strong” in Africa, said the Rev. David Phillips, the leader of a conservative Anglican evangelical group in England. “But mainly because the American church has a lot of money. But my impression is now that the issue is such a strong one, the African churches may say they will ignore the American influence, despite their money.”

When it comes to opposing homosexuality, some African churches appear to be willing to put principle before money. One day after Akinola issued his threat to cut ties with American dioceses who voted for Robinson’s election, the Nigerian sent an even more strident letter to his flock.

“We are mindful of the backlash this strong stand can engender from the rich churches in Europe, America and Canada, who have long used their wealth to intimidate the financially weak churches in Africa,” he wrote. “Our boldness in condemning the spiritual bankruptcy of these churches must be matched by our refusal to receive financial help from them.”

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion comprises autonomous national churches that are at liberty to interpret biblical scripture differently. The structure of the church is conducive to diverse cultures and changing times, but it has also left the institution vulnerable to schism.

Jack Thompson, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s Center for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World in Scotland, said that the current controversy only exposed existing tensions within the Anglican Communion.

“Worldwide Anglicans like to think that they are united, but it was always an amalgam anyway, held together only by the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury,” he said.

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“The African churches have a much more literalist interpretation of the Bible,” said Thompson, adding that African conservatism was a remnant of evangelical Anglican missions that brought Christianity to Africa. “And prior to the missionaries, many Africans also had traditional cultural attitudes toward homosexuality that combined to produce a form of Anglicanism which is very opposed to openly gay expression.” To many Africans, the mere mention of homosexuality is taboo.

“Religion is not just a Sunday thing for us,” said the Rev. Canon Jackson Turyagyenda, a spokesman for the Church of Uganda. “You might say we Africans are traditionally and incurably religious.” Turyagyenda says he is worried that Robinson’s confirmation will harm the prestige of the Anglican church, which competes for new converts with the larger Catholic church in Uganda.

In Sudan and Nigeria, some Anglican leaders are concerned that they will lose converts to Islam and lose respect in the eyes of other denominations. Mohammed abu Bakar, a Muslim cleric in Lagos, Nigeria, said that “if homosexuality is what their Bible teaches, it is evil in my own religion and in the sight of the Almighty. It is evil, and it must affect the credibility of the Anglican faith.”

South African Archbishop Winston Ndungane, successor of Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, was one of the few national Anglican leaders in Africa who declined to criticize the U.S. appointment directly. However, Ndungane did say that the U.S. Anglicans were generally “too obsessed with sexuality.”

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“What is an issue in the church in the United States is not an issue for us,” Ndungane said. “We’re dealing with life and death issues here -- poverty, hunger, disease, AIDS -- these are the things that occupy our minds.” But even Ndungane, who is known for his moderate views and support for social justice issues, has been criticized for his stance on gay priests in South Africa.

“Priests can be gay as long as they are chaste,” he said. “Homosexual priests must be celibate, but heterosexuals do not have to be celibate” if they are married.

Not since 1976, when the Episcopal Church broke with tradition and agreed to ordain women to the priesthood, has the denomination been so shaken by threats of schism and discordant voices. What happens in the next several months will be closely watched by other denominations that have also been struggling with the issue of homosexuality, among them the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The Episcopal Church is not the only Anglican church in which controversy over homosexuality has arisen in the last several months.

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In May, the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of New Westminster, which includes Vancouver, authorized same-sex blessing ceremonies. That prompted at least 17 foreign archbishops, mainly from Africa, to declare that they were in “impaired communion,” something like breaking diplomatic relations.

Then in July, a celibate homosexual priest, the Rev. Canon Jeffrey John, who was appointed suffragan, or assistant, bishop of the Church of England’s Diocese of Reading, was forced to decline the appointment amid opposition that included Akinola’s threat to leave the communion.

For many in the church, homosexuality has become a litmus test of fidelity to the faith. In the West, differences over how to interpret biblical passages that refer to sex between members of the same gender are controversial enough. But when conflicting cultural attitudes within a worldwide church are added to the mix the subject can become even more volatile.

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., says striking contrasts in attitudes are apparent when he travels to Africa.

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“What in our culture we describe as a ‘sexual identity’ is seen solely as a behavior in other parts of the world. There is no capacity to think of a person self-identifying as gay or lesbian,” he said.

“We also have incredible variations in vocabulary,” he continued. The “term ‘homosexual’ in our context is neutral, but the equivalent of that term in other languages is highly inflammatory. So we may think we’re speaking in a kind of reasonable, even prose, but the moment it’s translated into another language it becomes something quite different.”

These differences complicate dialogue, but Griswold said he was optimistic about the outcome of a meeting with other Anglican leaders in London in October to discuss the issue. The meeting was called last week by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Griswold and other American leaders doubt that the archbishop will agree to a separate Anglican province in North America in competition with the existing Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, a plan floated by conservatives.

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“I find it difficult to imagine two parallel realities within one geographical area. We’ll simply have to see how the whole thing plays out,” Griswold said.

But Bishop Robert W. Duncan of Pittsburgh, a leader in the American Anglican Council, said when he and 34 other bishops met with the archbishop in July 2002 before he was enthroned, Williams seemed open to a parallel church in the U.S.

“He said he did not see that the American church could go much longer without two provinces,” Duncan told reporters. “He’s been quite open about two provinces.... That is something he’s put on the table.”

If it did happen, the Rev. Canon David C. Anderson of Newport Beach, president of the American Anglican Council, said that over a three- to four-year period as many as 25 of the nation’s 110 Episcopal dioceses would wind up in the new “biblically orthodox” denomination.

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The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion have weathered great tensions before and emerged relatively unscathed. The Anglican ethos, at least to this point, has been to follow the via media, the middle way. “Unity does not mean unanimity,” Anglicans are fond of saying.

In the end, leaders in the church like the Very Rev. George Werner, president of the General Convention’s House of Deputies, hope that a core belief in Jesus Christ, which both sides share, will trump differences over homosexuality.

“We don’t have one prevailing point of view,” he said, “but we do reconcile or hold together our divergent points of view, not in statements of agreement but in our willingness to come to the table together and share the one bread and the one cup.”

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Stammer reported from Minneapolis and Moore from Johannesburg, South Africa. Times staff writers Janet Stobart in London and Judith Okello in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.


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