Early on the crisp morning of October 15, the archbishops of thirty-seven of the thirty-eight provinces of the Anglican Communion (known as primates) gathered in closed session at Lambeth Palace for two days of meetings. The unusual conference was called by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of 70 million Anglicans worldwide. Williams acted after conservative provinces in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean–the “global South”–and the vocal, well-organized conservative minority of the American Episcopal Church (the US Anglican Church) threatened schism this past summer in response to the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, and the decision of the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster to bless same-sex unions.
“I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man. Even in the world of animals, dogs, cows, lions, we don’t hear of such things,” Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria told the Lagos-based Guardian newspaper in an interview that was widely quoted in the British press. “When we sit down globally as a communion, I am going to sit in a meeting with a man who is marrying a fellow man…. I cannot see myself doing it.”
Feelings were so intense and press coverage so relentless that the purple-and-black-clad archbishops were bused secretly from their Brixton hotel and ushered through a back gate into the turreted palace, as police stood at yellow barricades set up at its grand entrance on the Thames.
At 11 that morning in the three Anglican churches closest to Lambeth, progressive church members worshiped at services organized by www.inclusivechurch.net, formed this past summer out of the widespread sense of despair and betrayal prompted by Archbishop Williams’s July turnaround on the appointment of Jeffrey John, an openly gay but celibate priest, as Suffragan Bishop of Reading. At the inclusive church service at St. Matthew’s, Westminster, the celebrant and preacher was Walter Makhulu, the former Archbishop of Central Africa. “This is a service of worship, not protest,” he declared in a resonant bass, his consonants reverberating as he described registering for apartheid with his parents as a child in South Africa–measurement of the width of his nose, scrutiny of the texture of his hair, categorization of his skin color. “Afterward, it was concluded that we were among those who did not merit the privileges of humanity,” he said, then forcefully denounced those who oppose the consecration of Robinson and the Canadian same-sex blessings. “The notion of an exclusive church is abhorrent to me,” he said. “It is a heresy just as apartheid was.”
Like Desmond Tutu, Makhulu pursued progressive policies when he was archbishop. The split between the generally conservative evangelicals and the generally liberal Anglicans goes back more than a hundred years, to a colonial moment when two Church of England missionary organizations divided the African continent. The more liberal Society for the Propagation of the Gospel took on South Africa, while the evangelical Church Mission Society took responsibility for West Africa, including Nigeria, where there are 17.5 million practicing Anglicans–compared with 2.3 million Episcopalians in the United States and 3.6 million who actually attend church in England, where Anglicanism is the state church.
Until now the Anglicans’ historical flexibility has allowed diverse thinking regarding sexuality and gender relations, but in the past decade this traditional pluralism has come under attack from the right. As Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, chillingly put it, “In my opinion there is just too much Rodney King theology–you know, Can’t we all just get along?” In the 1990s conservative and reactionary forces in the United States began to make common cause with conservative Anglicans in the global South. When dissident conservative bishops met in Dallas October 7-9 to strategize about the Lambeth meeting, they were organized by the conservative American Anglican Council and partly underwritten by Howard Ahmanson, the far-right California banking heir. The council shares office space in Washington with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which received $3.8 million in grants from conservative foundations between 1985 and 2002, including $1.7 million from foundations run by Richard Mellon Scaife.
The alliance of US conservative Anglican money and know-how and African evangelical numbers had its first major victory in 1998, at the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, when a resolution was passed upholding “faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and [stating] that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.”
At the recent London meeting, the primates threw bones to each side. The Episcopal Church was not expelled from the Anglican Communion, but American conservatives were guaranteed oversight by theologically sympathetic bishops, thus setting the ground for the formation of a separate conservative province, a move that would be a radical departure from traditional Anglicanism. Though the statement called for up to a year of reflection, the morning after it was issued Rowan Williams again took a realpolitik position. When asked by the BBC’s Today if he believed Gene Robinson should be a bishop, he said no, adding that it was his calling to keep the Communion together. In sharp contrast, US Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold believes the issue before the church is not homosexuality but “how a community can live in the tension of disagreement.”
On November 2, Gene Robinson was consecrated before a joyous congregation of 4,000 in the University of New Hampshire sports arena. And Episcopal conservatives were laying the groundwork for seceding to start their own province.