Friday, December 15, 2006

The Need for a United Response

We recently heard from Tanzania, who declared themselves out of communion with most of the bishops of the Anglican Communion based on a single criterion; sexual orientation. We have now heard from Uganda, who demands that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori be replaced at the February Primates' Meeting with another representative of TEC.

What are we to make of these statements, which sound rather bizarre to our ears? I think the first thing we need to keep in mind is that the cultural setting in Africa is quite different from our experience here in the States. For background on these differences, especially in East Africa, I commend to you this article from the Winter 2002 volume of the ATR. Here is a brief excerpt:

...From the point of view of East Africa, it was unfortunate that the issue should have emerged in the way it did. The Lambeth debate in 1998 forced the bishops to make judgements which were only tangentially related to the situation in their areas. Questions of ordination or same-sex marriage are not issues. Nor is there a strong homophobic tradition in the Church. In many ways the Church in Africa has a long experience of living with difference and ambiguity in ways which the Churches of America and Britain have not faced. For example, a majority of its members do not have officially recognised (Church) marriages; a significant proportion live in polygamous relations, or in forms of cohabitation which do not accord with Church marriage standards. In recent years, the Church in East Africa has had to come to terms with the fact that a significant proportion of its members, especially young people, are living with AIDS. It has not yet been required fully to face the fact that there have always been people of a homosexual orientation in their fellowship, and that increasingly this group will become visible. The Church needs to evolve strategies for exploring the particular needs and problems of such people. A pastoral concern for gay people has been articulated on a number of occasions. But it is still conceived primarily as a duty of warning and a call to conversion. If the Churches in East Africa have long had to deal with the stubborn fact of the diversity of the human condition and the tremendous struggle required to conform to Christian precepts and ideals, they have not yet developed fully satisfactory ways, pastorally and theologically, of handling the ambiguity of moral discourse, and the possibility that there are some moral issues which are not amenable to final or definitive answers, whether from the Bible or Christian tradition...
The way Lambeth 1988 responded to the issue of the practice of polygamy in Africa ("...a polygamist who responds to the Gospel and wishes to join the Anglican Church may be baptized and confirmed with his believing wives and children...") reveals that the Anglican Communion has recognized the different cultural settings in some parts of Africa, and has been willing to allow African church leaders to work out these matters without interference from those in other cultural settings.

It could be argued that the same tolerant approach has been taken in regards to homosexuality. The African churches that are still working out this cultural development should be allowed the freedom to do so in the manner they find the most pastoral and relevant to the realities they face in their local environments. The stripping of all civil rights, as we see in Nigeria and Uganda, is of great concern, and must be condemned, however. But, in regards to the teaching of the Church in those places, I think the guideline needs to be drawn from our lenient response to the issue of polygamy.

What cannot be allowed, however, is for these same African churches to not only deny the right for other parts of the body to respond to the pastoral realities within their cultures, but to demand that they adhere to their ultimatums. The Archbishop of Uganda has crossed the boundaries of The Episcopal Church, without permission (contrary to the Windsor Report, and numerous other Lambeth resolutions) and claimed ownership of 20 Episcopal congregations. He now claims to have the authority to choose who will reperesent TEC at the Primates' Meeting. The Archbishop of Nigeria has established a missionary presence in TEC, without permission, and has appointed an Episcopal priest as his "missionary bishop." Such attempts to force their cultural requirements across the Communion cannot be tolerated, as it strips other segments of the body from their ability to respond to ethical issues in an appropriately pastoral way.

Now, a couple of clarifications, and one recommendation;

It is a mistake to classify all African churches, or the Global South, as being cut from the same cloth, as the Primate of South Africa makes quite clear.

It should also now be clear that Bp. Minns of Nigeria is a missionary bishop, and cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered the Primate of any sub-group within TEC.

And now for my recommendation;

It is worth noting that TEC has taken the brunt of the global attacks regarding our insistence that "in this Church, there will be no outcasts." Note that the Primate of Anglican Church of Canada has not been mentioned, although the ACC is equally the subject of the Windsor Report. We know that there are many within the Communion who find themselves in the same postion as TEC in regards to needing the freedom to respond to pastoral situations within their cultural setting. To date, for the most part, with some clear exceptions, they have remained silent, apparently in fear that they will be added to the list of those to be excluded by the African Primates. In light of recent developments, I think it is time for at least our British brothers and sisters to break this silence.

Somewhere I read a commentary that spoke of bulding fences, and how those fences are being drawn in. I think this is exactly what is happening. Each diocese, and in some places each congregation, feels that what matters the most is that they keep their corner of the Kingdom out of this dispute. And so they are silent, trusting that the Americans will carry their banner successfully.

I'm afraid that assumption may have been wishful thinking. TEC is now required to build up their own fences, if for no other reason than to hold off the invasions of foreign bishops seeking to plunder Episcopal congregations.

To some degree, I don't believe these fences will keep us safe from these attacks over the long haul. Let the Church of England beware. There is no longer any question that you are the next on the list of lands to be conquered. I think the time has come to throw off the defensive isolationism that many within the Communion have attempted to use as cover, and respond with a united front.


UPDATE: Tobias offers us an example suggesting responses in East Africa are much more fluid that some Church leaders would have us believe. Here is a recent letter from Bishop Mdimi Mhogolo, Diocese of Central Tanganyika, Province of Tanzania:

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus

You might have ready that the House of Bishops acting not on behalf of the whole Church but on their own have issued another statement regarding its relationship with ECUSA. Among other things, the statement shows that the communion between the Anglican Church of Tanzania and the Episcopal Church in the US is severely impaired and that no financial or human personnel support from ECUSA will be received by the Anglican Church of Tanzania. Put that way, the statement assumes that there is some communion that still exist between the two bodies of the Church of Christ.

DCT still remains in communion with ECUSA, maintaining our mutual respect for our cultural traditions and values. When one visits the other, he/she should not impose one's cultural understanding of Christianity on the other. There are so many Christian things that we share together than the things that divide us&.Our relationship with ECUSA institutions will continue as usual; and if DCT continues to work together with secular organizations and governments such as CARE INTERNATIONAL, OXFAM, governments of UK, Germany, Australia, and Japan in trying to realize the Millennium Development Goals, how much more will we enjoy working with our brothers and sisters from the US in doing together God's mission to the world?
We stand firm in our work for Christ with all those with good will in the Episcopal Church. No body has the right to tell us to do otherwise.

Peace and grace to you all


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