Anglicans take opposing sides on divisive issue

Rebecca Harrisonand Wangui Kanina

Rebecca Harrisonand Wangui Kanina

As the row over gay clergy in the Anglican church deepens, growing numbers of conservative American priests are abandoning the liberal US church and pledging allegiance to traditionalist African bishops.

The Africans, who take a tough line on homosexuality, are keen to recruit the dissident priests as bishops under their own authority, and to provide a new spiritual home for their wealthy US congregations.

But liberals say the African bishops are violating church rules by setting up fiefdoms in America and deepening a crisis that threatens to split the Anglican communion, a worldwide federation of 38 member churches.

"It's a terrible breach of long-standing Christian tradition. You don't invade someone else's territory just because you disagree with them," said Jan Nunley, deputy communications director for the Episcopal Church.

Traditionalist Anglicans, mostly from developing countries, are at loggerheads with the small but wealthy Episcopal Church - the main Anglican church in the US headed by liberal Archbishop Katharine Jefferts Schori - over whether to ordain openly gay clergy.

Conservatives say Anglican provinces overseas have taken hundreds of the 7000 Episcopal congregations under their wing, though liberals say the number is close to 70.

The Church of Rwanda started adopting conservative US congregations in 2000 as part of its missionary outreach. Its Anglican Mission to the Americas says it began with seven churches and now has 116, all under Rwandan authority.

Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola caused a storm in May when he consecrated dissident Episcopal priest Martyn Minns as bishop of a Nigerian church in the US.

And now archbishops in Kenya and Uganda plan to consecrate three priests as bishops for breakaway orthodox congregations in the US in coming weeks. This will create more conservative African outposts amid the liberal American mainstream.

"In Uganda, we have provided a home for refugees from Congo, Rwanda, and Sudan," said Ugandan Archbishop Henry Orombi, who is consecrating John Guernsey of Virginia on September 2.

"Now we are also providing a home for ecclesiastical refugees from America."

Kenyan Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi will consecrate Americans Bill Atwood and Bill Murdoch on August 30 as assistant bishops in the province of Kenya, looking after a handful of US churches.

The 77-million-strong Anglican church has been divided since 2003 when its 2,4million-member US branch consecrated Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in its history.

Conservatives say the US church has disobeyed Biblical commands and broken with Anglican teaching by backing gay priests.

Liberals, on the other hand, support a looser interpretation of scripture and say Anglicanism has always embraced diversity.

The Africans say they want to rescue US churches and individuals who might otherwise abandon Anglicanism.

"We are not undermining the authority of anybody. We are saving people who so much need us," Kenya's Nzimbi said.

"If they are left on their own, they would be like sheep without a shepherd."

Anglican leader Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is struggling to prevent a full-blown schism and has appealed to the Africans to halt the consecrations. - Reuters