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Anglican angst

The church is split over issues like homosexuality. Where some see progress, others see decadence.

February 16, 2007

ANGLICAN BISHOPS from around the world are meeting this week in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in what is being advertised as a showdown between the predominantly liberal Episcopal Church of the United States -- which is represented by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the denomination's first female presiding bishop -- and the conservative churches of the "Global South."

A leading source of division is the American church's growing acceptance of homosexuality. But there is another factor in the rift between liberal Anglicans from North America and their conservative brethren in Africa and elsewhere -- one that also figures in a nasty debate about what really led to the 9/11 attacks. That factor is Islam and the discomfort many of its adherents feel about what they see as Western decadence.

Philip Jenkins, a professor at Penn State University who has written about the Anglican divide, told Religion News Service recently that "one reason Africans don't want to change on [strictures against homosexuality] is they don't want to seem to be more morally lax than the Muslims who they are competing with for converts."

Competition between Christians and Muslims is especially pronounced in Nigeria, home of Archbishop Peter Akinola, the leading voice of Global South bishops who have criticized the American church for approving the election of the openly gay V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. (Akinola called Robinson's election "a satanic attack on God's church.")

It's unclear whether a schism can be averted in Dar es Salaam this week. But whatever happens, the proceedings will be shadowed by the competition between Christianity and Islam not only in Africa but in Asia and the Middle East.

Some American conservatives, most recently Dinesh D'Souza, make the outrageous claim that Islamic unease with American permissiveness is a strategic problem and may have actually contributed to Al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan. In "The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11," D'Souza says that "the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world." In a recent interview with National Review Online, D'Souza complained that "the left is trying to force Turkey to liberalize its laws on homosexuality as a condition of joining the European Union."

D'Souza, blinded by his own partisanship, fails to see (or willfully ignores) the larger truth: Many Western ideals -- from the cultural right as well as left -- make Muslims uncomfortable. What many people in the West (churchgoing or not) see as progress -- tolerance for gays, equality for women, separation of church and state -- is seen by many in the Islamic world as blasphemous and threatening. The question, and not just for Anglican bishops, is whether the West will maintain the courage of its convictions.

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