Beliefnet News

By Daniel Burke
c. 2008 Religion News Service

CANTERBURY, England — For five years, conservative Episcopalians eager to escape their liberal American church have been building ties with African Anglicans half a world away.
But they have few connections with black Americans in their own back yard, say black Episcopal bishops gathered here for a once-a-decade meeting of Anglican prelates.
“It’s something that I like to point out,” said the Bishop Eugene Sutton,the first black Episcopal bishop in Maryland, “the historical anomaly of dioceses that have nothing to do with the black community going all the way to Africa to make these relationships.”
Moreover, Sutton and other black bishops here say that the use of Scripture to reject homosexuality in the Anglican Communion evokes previous eras’ Biblically based arguments in support of slavery and racism.
African prelates, however, reject that argument, and American conservatives say it is shared theology — not race — that motivates their alliances.
“This is just another revisionist attempt to use anything to undermine the orthodox position of the church and spread the agenda of inclusiveness,” said the Right Rev. Peter Beckwith, the conservative bishop of Springfield, Ill.
While the eight black Episcopal bishops here favor gay rights in their church, most Africans from the wider Anglican Communion disagree.
That conflict forms a part of the larger split running through the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of 650 Anglican bishops from around the world that ends Sunday (Aug. 3). The meeting comes as the Anglican Communion, and its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church, are bitterly divided over whether to allow gay clergy and bless same-sex relationships.
In the small discussion groups that form the backbone of the conference, some black Episcopal bishops say they have framed their support for gay rights within the context of a long struggle to include blacks and women in the church and in society at large.
“As a person who knows what it means to be oppressed, I refuse to allow my brothers and sisters in the faith to be discriminated against,”
said Suffragan Bishop Gayle Harris of Massachusetts.
But Bishop Sitembela Mzamane of South Africa, who says he is also “the victim of oppression,” said it’s “very inappropriate to equate the struggle of blacks in Africa or in the diaspora” with those of gays and lesbians.
“They are not victims of human rights at all,” Mzamane said.
Bishop Bernard Ntahoturi of Burundi also disavowed any comparison between abolition and gay rights. “You cannot compare slavery with homosexuality. Slavery is a sin. Homosexuality is not about rights, it’s about how God created you,” he said.
More than 200 bishops, mainly from Africa, are boycotting the Lambeth Conference, saying they won’t meet with North American bishops who preach a “false gospel” that condones homosexuality.
The boycotting bishops, who say homosexual acts violate biblical morality, are incensed that the Episcopal Church allows same-sex blessings and elected an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
U.S. conservatives, who are mainly white, have reached out to African archbishops from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria, urging them to cross traditional church borders by adopting parishes and appointing bishops in the U.S.
“They’re looking for black faces to give them legitimacy,” Sutton said of U.S. conservatives, “because they can’t find them at home.”
Harris said the bonds between Africans and U.S. conservatives are a “political expediency” and that “connections made for the time being will not last across the huge gulf of understanding” between the groups.
But Beckwith, who is white and a member of the Global Anglican Future Conference, a conservative movement led by African prelates, said conservatives have the most important thing in common. “We are united and ground in the same faith,” he said.
Bishop Nathan Baxter, the first black Episcopal bishop of Central Pennsylvania, says the disagreement between African bishops and their U.S. counterparts mirrors a domestic debate among black Americans.
“Many African Americans have mixed feelings about homosexuality and the church,” Baxter said. “So, they are somewhat reserved about drawing too strong a parallel between the historical oppression of African Americans and the gay and lesbian experience.”
And though he supports the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in his church, the Pennsylvania bishop says his fellow black bishops’
arguments here may not be heeded.
“I don’t think the argument about African American experience has any real relevance outside the American church,” Baxter said. “The English bishops, the African bishops, that’s not their history, not their experience.”

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus