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Adding to division

The tensions within the Anglican Communion are a reflection of the global culture wars.

August 09, 2008

Bishops of the Anglican Communion, a confederation of churches with roots in the Church of England, held their once-a-decade meeting recently and managed to avert a long-predicted schism over homosexuality. Although 200 conservative bishops boycotted the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, other conservatives showed up and joined their liberal counterparts in soul-searching sessions inspired by the Zulu indaba, or tribal conference.

Still, tensions were evident between liberal bishops from North America and conservative ones from the "Global South." The archbishop of Sudan demanded the resignation of Gene Robinson, the openly gay New Hampshire bishop whose ordination in 2003 was the casus belli of the crisis. A female bishop from the United States suggested that "many of our bishops come from places where it is culturally accepted to beat your wife."

That Anglicans remain uneasily united is a victory for Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury who has been engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the two wings of the communion. Williams has been pleading with liberals in North America to refrain from ordaining gays and lesbians or blessing same-sex unions, and with conservative bishops in the Global South to stop meddling in liberal dioceses. But, lacking the authority of the pope, Williams can't order the two sides to exercise restraint, and some in both camps are likely to defy him.

The dispute among Anglicans may seem a strictly religious argument, turning on whether biblical prohibitions of homosexuality should be interpreted literally or softened, as scriptural condemnations of divorce have been without much protest from conservatives. But like the movement for women's equality, the campaign for recognition of the personhood of gays and lesbians is broader than the church; witness the gay rights movement that achieved its most important victory in the legalization of same-sex civil marriage in Massachusetts and California.

Sexual orientation isn't the only issue to resonate outside the Anglican fold. Societies like those from which some conservative bishops come are coping with a Western culture that seems to mock traditional notions of faith and family, a consequence of globalization. And tensions between the West and Islam underlie the complaint by African bishops that an endorsement of homosexuality by Western churches puts Christians at a disadvantage with Muslims -- and at risk of physical violence -- in areas where the two faiths compete for adherents.

You don't have to be an Anglican -- or even a Christian -- to find these conflicts familiar. In the culture wars, there is no separation of church and state.

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