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Torn-again Christians

By Terry Joseph
August 08, 2003

While Tuesday's decision by the Minneapolis Episcopalian Conference to elevate a gay Canon to the bishopric focused on a predictable split in the worldwide Anglican communion, an issue of even greater severity is simultaneously threatening further fracture.

Ironically, even as former slave colonies last Friday celebrated Emancipation Day, African Episcopalian prelates were publicly rebuking what Nigeria's Archbishop Peter Akinola described as "insidious neo-imperialism," generated from within the very church, by rich white North American counterparts.

Presumably because it lacked spicy details, Archbishop Akinola's astonishing declaration attracted little attention from the Minneapolis media circus, which tracked every nuance of openly-gay Canon V Gene Robinson's nomination to the bishopric of New Hampshire.

Spokesman for prelates from Africa, Asia and Australia firmly against the ordination of gay priests or blessing of same-sex marriages, Archbishop Akinola discovered that powerful church leaders in the US and Canada who disagree with his group's position, may also have renounced the view that vengeance should be left to the Lord.

In reprisal against admonition of their attempts to extort a change of thinking from his group, Archbishop Akinola said, well-to-do US and Canadian congregations have begun withholding much needed and hitherto routine financial assistance to poor African dioceses.

Leader of Nigeria's 17.5 million Anglicans, the largest flock in Africa, Archbishop Akinola, along with ten other archbishops and 81 bishops from that nation last month severed relations with Canadian dioceses that blessed same-sex unions. He accused North American colleagues of "using wealth to intimidate Africans," labelling them "theologically corrupt", while calling on wealthy Nigerians to contribute toward weaker congregations on the Dark Continent.

Nigerians responded with hefty donations but sympathisers in the US, Canada and Europe have been even more forthcoming, indicating a global groundswell for his stance, and exposing yet another fissure in the Anglican communion of those countries; one not strictly based on issues of sexuality.

And the new rift will likely be deeper and longer lasting because, ponderous as it may have first appeared, the hullabaloo over ordination of Canon Robinson fizzled with the slim majority vote that secured his ascendancy, although the gathering later stopped short of blessing same-sex union.

While rubbing shoulders in the pews may be out of the question, opposing groups will presumably continue praying fervently to One God for understanding, citing conflicting but uniquely supportive scriptures from the identical source, one side arguing inclusion of an ever-increasing gay congregation and the other relying on the religious might of orthodox doctrines.

All the same, nothing is really new here. With a history of squabbles over who best interprets The Word, Christianity has frequently reconfigured biblical tenets, spawning new congregations from major episodes of dissent and, at every sequence, the resulting sect claiming fresh inspiration and insight.

Taken for granted nowadays, the right to divorce was initially contested to the point of schism. King Henry VIII refused to accept the papal position on the subject and, in a move that may yet be cited as precedent for the North American withholding of handouts, summarily stopped sending funds to Rome when he wished to marry again (and again, and again).

His resistance led to the formation of the Protestant Church and eventually the development of a varied appreciation of the Bible, a version sanctioned by King James who, a number of religious scholars have argued, was himself gay.

Theological thinkers have, since first conflict with the Church of Rome, produced a number of alternative approaches. Resulting disputes gave us Methodists, Presbyterians, Moravians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Quakers, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Pentecostals, Rastafari and Born-Again Christians.

Those divisions in turn produced a number of offshoots, most retaining neither allegiance to nor jurisdictional respect for the Archbishop of Canterbury Head of the Anglican Church. Indeed, the current title-holder, The Most Rev Dr Rowan Williams, was himself in Africa last week, speaking at a former slaveship port, denouncing contemporary forms of bondage; a talk that touched on "greed in terms of both money and sex."

The sexuality debate at the Minneapolis conference, although attracting worldwide attention, consequently pales against the emerging issue of black vs white clergy and rich vs poor congregations raised by Archbishop Akinola topics not on the ballot at the current talks that might more quickly send the Anglican Church into its worst tailspin since the crisis of The Middle Ages that produced 35 anti-popes.

Not the least of African Anglican worry is the exponential spread of Islam on the continent and its proven potential for attracting defectors from other faiths. Given the outcome of the first-round joust over gay issues, Anglicans sympathetic to the fundamentalist view of zero tolerance of such lifestyles might prefer to switch, rather than pursue what now seems a pointless fight.

The money crunch facing small African congregations will undoubtedly make them prey, resulting in further dwindling of the Christian population there, frustrating the work of priests who will still be able to offer eventual salvation but not enough material considerations here on earth; leaving in abeyance critical issues like feeding the poor and looking after the continent's still growing number of parishioners afflicted with HIV/Aids.

While prelates disappointed by the Minneapolis decision are busy wondering if dark powers and principalities are responsible for this branch of mischief, there is no doubt that the looming crisis identified by Archbishop Akinola hinges on money; widely considered the very root of all evil.

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