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African Anglicans try to transform US church

Conservatives eye schism over gays

Former Episcopal priests Will G. Atwood III (left) of Texas and William L. Murdoch (right) of Massachusetts were questioned in Nairobi last week by Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi as they were consecrated bishops of the Anglican Church of Kenya. Former Episcopal priests Will G. Atwood III (left) of Texas and William L. Murdoch (right) of Massachusetts were questioned in Nairobi last week by Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi as they were consecrated bishops of the Anglican Church of Kenya. (Davide Signa for the Boston Globe)

NAIROBI, Kenya - The subject of Sunday's sermon at St. Stephen's Anglican Church was repentance, and the preacher found an obvious example of the sinfulness of contemporary culture within the branch of his own denomination an ocean away in the United States.

Criticizing the Episcopal Church's embrace of gays and lesbians, the Rev. Samuel Muchiri told the 1,000 worshipers "we in Kenya feel this is not what God wants." An usher advised a visiting reporter to "remember that Sodom and Gomorrah was demolished because there were homosexuals." Another warned that the reporter could be assaulted if he asked worshipers about the issue, and said that America's permissiveness toward homosexuality had led Osama bin Laden to attack.

Those sentiments have been building for years, and now a group of Anglican archbishops is attempting to plant the seeds for a new, conservative Anglicanism in North America that will either transform or replace the Episcopal Church.

"All these people brought Christianity to us, but now the church is growing here [in Africa] like wildfire, it's spreading everywhere, while the church in England is withering, the church in the States is going completely, and there has been a cry, 'Why don't you come? You should have come here a long time ago to evangelize,' " said Archbishop Bernard A. Malango, the Anglican primate of Central Africa. "We need to send missionaries, even to Britain; we need to send missionaries to the United States, and we need to send missionaries to Canada, because those who brought the church here have lost what their intention was, and the same Bible they brought to us is being misinterpreted. We find it very odd."

Malango was one of seven Anglican primates, as the archbishops of regional provinces of the Anglican Communion are called, who gathered in Nairobi last Thursday to consecrate as bishops of the Anglican Church of Kenya two former Episcopal priests, including William L. Murdoch of Massachusetts. Then, many of those same primates, from the developing nations of the Southern Hemisphere, went to Kampala on Sunday to consecrate a third American as a bishop of Uganda.

The significance of the consecrations is hotly debated. Episcopal Church officials and their defenders say that most Episcopalians are comfortable with their church's theological direction, and that only a small fraction of Episcopal congregations - 45 of 7,500 - have departed over the controversy. Some liberals go further, saying that the Global South primates are being manipulated and used by American right-wingers who are bent on creating a schism and are exploiting unease over homosexuality to drive a wedge between liberals and conservative Episcopalians. And some liberals argue that the momentum for schism has diminished since 2003, when the uproar ensued over the Episcopal Church's approval of V. Gene Robinson, a gay priest living with a man in a long-term relationship, as the bishop of New Hampshire.

"Only the most ardent homophobes are getting ready to bolt . . . and the separatist agenda is losing ground everywhere," said Jim Naughton, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C. and the editor of a blog called Episcopal Cafe. "The idea that the average African is looking to cause a split over homosexuality is ridiculous. This is about a small coterie of leaders that over the years have received a great deal of money from American conservatives who are eager to push this agenda."

But in Africa, the primates say they are just getting started. They say that they are motivated by a concern for the state of Anglicanism in the West, and that they are speaking for a majority of the world's Anglicans, and a substantial minority of American Episcopalians, in expressing their position that the Episcopal Church has violated Biblical teachings by approving Robinson's consecration. They say that 250 American congregations - most of which were not former parishes but are made up of onetime Episcopalians - are now supervised by Global South Anglican provinces.

"We want the orthodox believers to understand they are not alone," said Archbishop Henry L. Orombi, the primate of Uganda. "And we want to state that where the Episcopal Church has failed, we don't let down our brethren."

The primates are acting without the blessing of the Anglican Communion, and over the objection of the Episcopal Church. All told, the provinces of Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda now claim to oversee 11 Anglican bishops in the United States.

"God cannot be mocked," said Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya. "Here, in the context of Kenya, if we take somebody who is polygamous and we make him a lay reader or a priest, we would be doing the wrong thing. . . . If I know somebody is a homosexual, and I make him a lay reader, or I make him a priest, or I make him a bishop, I am sanctioning what he is doing as right. I am saying 'no' to this, and the church is saying 'no' to this."

But the primates insist that homosexuality is not the only problem; they say it is just the most obvious manifestation of what they perceive to be a broader problem with the Episcopal Church: that it has ceased to follow the Bible, and is declining as a result.

"Sadly, the sexuality issue isn't the issue - it's about Scripture," said Archbishop Gregory J. Venables, the primate of South America. "What's happened in the States is that they've moved away from the view that God has revealed himself in Scripture, and they're rewriting that with post-modernity relativism."

The primates say that they see the presence of American bishops who report to Africa as a temporary phenomenon to help the American conservatives form a new Anglican province.

"We want to see them fully organized so that they can stand on their own," said Orombi, the primate of Uganda. He called the African presence in the United States "a temporary measure, a transition for them while they move on."

Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, who came to Nairobi for the consecrations, said he expects to see a new Anglican province in North America that will replace the Episcopal Church.

"We are realigning," said Duncan, who added he would attempt to pull his entire diocese out of the Episcopal Church, a move that would raise an unprecedented set of legal and financial questions about the ownership of parish buildings and diocesan property.

Partisans dispute whether it is the American conservatives or the Global South primates who are pushing the notion of schism, but scholars say the two sides both have reasons for their positions.

"The Northerners have a more-or-less legitimate way to stay 'officially' Anglican while breaking from the Episcopal Church, and they also gain the moral/symbolic power of being able to assert that they're in accord with the majority of Anglicans in the world," said Miranda K. Hassett, an anthropologist and the author of the new book "Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism."

"For the Southern Anglican leaders involved, they get the world's attention," she said. "Claiming jurisdiction over conservatives in the US, claiming the right to remissionize this country, is a powerful way to assert and dramatize their concern about American culture and its global influence."

Since Robinson's consecration, there have been many threats of schism and efforts at reconciliation. Later this month, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is scheduled to meet in New Orleans with the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops. Then, next summer, he will host bishops from throughout the world at the Lambeth Conference; already partisans from both sides are threatening to boycott.

"My best bet would be that individual Episcopal dioceses will carry on electing gay bishops, and that the Episcopal Church will be kicked out effectively or de facto," said Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. "In terms of the average life of Episcopalians in the US, the difference will be nil. But it will be important symbolically, and a big example for Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, who are watching this closely."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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