Crisis in the Communion

Article excerpt

The Rev. Richard Kirker, an Anglican priest, laughs when he remembers his confrontation with a Nigerian cleric. Five years ago the leader of the international Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement was attending a gathering in London when the bishop laid hands on him in an attempt to "cure" his sinful homosexuality. "He was trying to exorcise the demon in me," Kirker says, chuckling.

He sees nothing funny, though, in the "homophobic" attitudes that threaten to split his church. The long-simmering debate over homosexuality and the clergy erupted into open battle last week when the American Episcopal Church, part of the global Anglican family, confirmed an openly gay priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, as Bishop of New Hampshire, the first such appointment in church history. Liberals welcomed the news as a victory for Christian tolerance over prejudice. Many saw it as a blow for modernity that, they hope, will be emulated elsewhere. But orthodox leaders responded very differently. To them, Robinson's elevation was an affront to Biblical teachings--and a challenge to their own standing within the church, whose membership worldwide exceeds 75 million. With passions escalating and little hope of compromise, there's now open talk of schism. "The strains may be just too great," says David Jenkins, a retired Church of England bishop and theologian. "In some ways, the honest position would be to split."

The row has resonance far beyond the church's traditional heartlands. Once upon a time, Anglicanism was largely an affair for the English and their Episcopal cousins in America. Over its 450-year history the church could often count on assured ties with the establishment--the queen remains temporal head of the Church of England--and healthy financial support. Today's church looks very different, however. In much of the northern world, pews are emptying fast. Churchgoing among Anglicans in the United Kingdom has fallen 7.5 percent over the past 10 years. By some reckonings, the Church of England still ranks as the largest in Anglicanism, but for many, observance stretches little beyond Christ-mas Day worship. Only the conservative-minded evangelicals--enemies of the gay cause--have managed to lift their numbers.

Instead, it's Britain's former colonies, especially in Africa, that now supply most of the church's strength. Like other African churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant, the Anglicans have seen congregations swell. In hard times, communities have welcomed the positive message preached by the evangelicals who increasingly dominate local churches. "It's often said that the typical Anglican is now black, female and under 30," says Gregory Cameron of the Anglican Communion in London, an umbrella group for the church's 38 Anglican churches worldwide. Nigeria is a case in point. Over the past 30 years the church has seen its membership there climb sevenfold to about 20 million, nearly 10 times the figure for the United States.

That's no help to the liberal churchmen of North America and the United Kingdom. The African leadership has stuck close to the conventional Bible-based teachings bequeathed by European missionaries and their former colonial masters. For most of them, the answer to the question of homosexuality within the church is simple. It's a resounding no, says the Right Rev. William Waqo of the Anglican Church of Kenya. "It's a question of saying, 'This is what I believe, and this is what I hold to'," he adds, explaining his own opposition to Robinson's appointment. …