For religion-watchers, the decision by several northern Virginia parishes to split with the Episcopal Church and join Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola’s crusade against Anglican liberalism came as no surprise. Akinola, the most powerful figure in the Anglican Communion, directly leads at least 17 million Christians and has been fomenting this schism since at least the consecration of openly-gay Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003. It became inevitable, however, once Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church earlier this year. Schori, a supporter of Robinson and same-sex unions, is the first woman to lead a division of the Anglican Church.
For the most part, the mainstream press has done a decent job of reporting the nuts and bolts of the split. The Washington Post noted Akinola’s support for legislation in Nigeria that would make it a crime for gays and lesbians to dine together in restaurants and identified him as “an advocate for jailing gays.” In a subsequent op-ed, Harold Meyerson dubbed the breakaway faction “Episcopalians Against Equality,” and linked them to other orthodox fundamentalists of Catholic and Jewish persuasions who’ve made anti-gay politics a focal point of their scriptural literalism.
Akinola’s supporters quickly denied these allegations. In a post on the website of Truro Church (Fairfax, Virginia), Marytn Minns, a leader of the schism and a friend of Akinola’s since their days at the Virginia Theological Seminary in the early ’80s, said “That is not true. Archbishop Akinola believes that all people — whatever their manner of life or sexual orientation — are made in the image of God and deserve to be treated with respect.” Subsequently, the Post and other outlets repeated Minns’ claim, cryptically writing, “His advocates say he is trying to navigate an explosive cultural situation in Nigeria and appease Muslim leaders.”
While it’s certainly true that parts of northern Nigeria submit to Sharia law, under which homosexual sex is punishable by death by stoning, holding Muslim leaders solely responsible for the bill doesn’t quite wash with an examination of Akinola’s published declarations. The legislation under question is known as the “Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act.” Under the guise of banning gay marriage, the bill would prohibit almost any association of gays and lesbians, restrict their freedom of speech and movement. Section 7 prohibits any “publicity, procession and public show of same sex amorous relationships through the electronic or print media” (for example, a screening of Brokeback Mountain). It would also imprison for five years anyone “involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public showing of same sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly in public and in private” (for example, any lesbians or gays meeting in a restaurant or even in their own homes).
This bill was introduced by Nigeria’s Minister of Justice, Bayo Ojo, on January 19, 2006. In a “message to the nation” issued in February, Akinola endorsed the legislation saying, “The Church commends the law-makers for their prompt reaction to outlaw same-sex relationships in Nigeria and calls for the bill to be passed since the idea expressed in the bill is the moral position of Nigerians regarding human sexuality.” In another declaration made in September, Akinola said, “The Church affirms our commitment to the total rejection of the evil of homosexuality which is a perversion of human dignity and encourages the National Assembly to ratify the Bill prohibiting the legality of homosexuality since it is incongruent with the teachings of the Bible, Quran and the basic African traditional values.”
Given these statements, the attempts by Akinola’s supporters to distance themselves (and him) from his previous support of this draconian legislation ring false. Is this crusade what the parishioners of Truro Church and Falls Church in Virginia, who according to World magazine include “leaders of government agencies, members of Congress, Washington journalists, and think-tank presidents,” meant to endorse by siding with Akinola?
In the next few days, I’ll report more on the Anglican schism, including posts on their right-wing US backers (Scaife, Olin, Coors), their interpretation of scripture and their narrative of reverse imperialism (Africa to the US), so stay tuned.