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Two Worlds Collide in Anglican Church

August 10, 2003|Larry B. Stammer and Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writers

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — 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.

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.

"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.

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