NAIROBI - Delivering a blistering rebuke to the Episcopal Church for its support of gay and lesbian rights, spiritual leaders representing tens of millions of Anglican Christians from around the world gathered here yesterday to consecrate two conservative American priests as bishops despite the opposition of the US church.
As female worshipers ululated with joy, the archbishop of Kenya, Benjamin M. P. Nzimbi, declared that the two new bishops, William L. Murdoch of Massachusetts and Will G. Atwood III of Texas, would return to the United States to serve as missionaries to a nation that Nzimbi said is losing the Christian faith it once exported to Africa.
The five-hour consecration service, held in a simple stone cathedral on the outskirts of downtown Nairobi, brought an end to any remaining comity between conservatives and liberals in the global Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the US province.
Throughout the worship service, speakers repeatedly criticized the Episcopal Church, which is among the most liberal of American denominations; at one point, a letter was read suggesting the American church has been "misled by the devil." Although the critics generally say they believe the Episcopal Church has lost its way on a variety of theological matters, the issue they cite most often is homosexuality.
"It is a division of opinion between those of us who firmly believe that homosexual practice violates the order of life given by God, and those who seek, by various means, to justify what Scripture does not," said Archbishop Drexel W. Gomez of the West Indies, the main preacher at yesterday's service. In his sermon, Gomez accused the Episcopal Church of "aggressive revisionist theology" and said the idea that homosexuality is permissible for Christians is "a lie."
"[The apostle] Paul singles out homosexuality in the Gospel for special attention, because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God's created order," Gomez said. "We believe that faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ prevents us from compromising the truth so clearly revealed in Holy Scripture."
Although a rift in Anglicanism had been evolving for some time, it became a full-out controversy threatening to split the denomination when the Episcopal Church decided in 2003 to approve the election of an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.
Despite a call last summer by the Episcopal Church's own general convention for a moratorium on further consecration of gay bishops, this week the Diocese of Chicago named a lesbian priest among the five candidates for election to be its new bishop. The Episcopal Church has also acknowledged that many of its dioceses are allowing priests to bless same-sex relationships, and in eastern Massachusetts the bishop, M. Thomas Shaw, has been an outspoken advocate of legalizing same-sex marriage.
In brief remarks to the congregation in Nairobi yesterday, Atwood, who heads an international group of conservative Anglicans, alluded to the gay issue, saying, "All are welcome at the cross, but we come not to stay as we are; we come to be changed, to become more like Jesus. There is a competing message that seeks to replace the Gospel, but it's a superficial one, an innovation that denies sin by attempting to redefine it, and it robs people of the forgiveness that Jesus died to bring."
Murdoch, whose brother is a gay Episcopal priest in West Roxbury, offered a more general expression of gratitude to the Kenyan church as a model of enthusiasm and growth, saying, "Who could tell us better the mission is urgent?"
The service was attended by archbishops and bishops who claimed to represent a majority of the world's Anglicans, including the primates who serve as spiritual leaders of the Anglican provinces in Central Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, West Africa, the Indian Ocean region, South America, and the West Indies, as well as an archbishop representing the primate of Nigeria and bishops representing minority conservative factions in the Anglican provinces of Canada, England and the United States. Of the 78 million adherents worldwide cited by the Anglican Communion, about two million live in the United States; in Kenya, a nation about one-tenth the size, there are about three million Anglicans.
Advocates for gay rights in the Anglican Communion reacted angrily to yesterday's consecration.
"The consecrations today are one more sad indication of just how far those committed to splitting the Episcopal Church are willing to go to achieve their goal of a church created in their own image," said Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, an organization based in Rochester, N.Y., that advocates for gay rights in the Episcopal Church. In an e-mail, Russell called the new bishops "intercontinental ballistic weapons of schism."
The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts has argued that Murdoch's consecration in Kenya is not a major development because it concerns just one priest and one parish, while most in the diocese support gay rights.
"All dioceses and provinces within the Anglican Communion are free to elect and consecrate bishops according to their own polities," Maria Plati, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said by e-mail. "The nearer concern of the leadership of the Diocese of Massachusetts is for the faithful Episcopalians here who continue to live out their faith in common prayer and service to others."
The Episcopal Church declined through its spokeswoman, Neva Rae Fox, to offer any comment other than to say that its bishops might address the issue again this fall. In March, the bishops decried intervention in the United States by bishops from foreign Anglican churches, saying such actions "have violated our provincial boundaries and caused great suffering and contributed immeasurably to our difficulties in solving our problems."
But the African bishops compare their actions to previous moments in history when Anglicans in the United States and the United Kingdom sent missionaries to Africa, and said they have a duty to serve Anglicans in the United States who feel they no longer have a church home.
The consecration was attended by about 600 people, a modest-sized crowd for Nairobi; the worshipers included about 40 visiting Americans as well as the mayor of Nairobi. The diocese was clearly expecting a larger crowd; it had set up a tent outside for an overflow that did not materialize.
But it was a festive affair, with frequently exuberant singing, in English and Swahili, and worshipers dancing in place. After the worship, the new bishops planted trees in the cathedral's side yard and joined the worshipers for an outdoor lunch.
The bishops-designate were surrounded by photographers through much of the service, even when they were kneeling at the altar. The photographers made it impossible for most of the worshippers to see a dramatic moment when the new bishops were surrounded by supportive bishops from around the world, who placed their hands on the heads of Murdoch and Atwood.
But the ceremony was rich with symbolism. Murdoch and Atwood arrived wearing purple cassocks, and during the service they were escorted out three times to add layers of clothing associated with bishops: first a white full-length ruffled garment called a rochet, then, over that, a red riding coat called a chimere and a black scarf called a tippett, and then, once they had become bishops, a beige cape, called a cope, and a miter. And they were given signs of the office, including a ring, a pectoral cross, a Bible, and a staff.
Murdoch and Atwood plan to return to the United States to help oversee the approximately 30 congregations that have chosen to affiliate with the Anglican Church of Kenya. Other congregations in the United States have affiliated with other southern hemisphere dioceses; the exact number of breakaway congregations is in dispute, ranging from 45 to 250. Murdoch, who had been pastor of All Saints Episcopal Church in West Newbury, Mass., will also serve as bishop-rector of a new congregation he is launching, All Saints Anglican, in a former Catholic parish his congregation is buying in Amesbury.
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.