Monday, March 29, 2010

Understanding Anglicanism in Africa

Killing the Buddha is hosting an essay that is a "must read" for all Anglicans: Notes from the Tangled Anglican Web. The author, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University and the former Assistant Director of Religion and Public Life at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Professor Rubentstein helps us sort out some of the complex dynamics at play within Anglicanism in Africa.

There are a number of noteworthy nuggets to be found in this essay. I'll just mention a couple.

Professor Rubenstein refers to the work of Ifi Amadiume; Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Sex and Gender in African Society:

...Focusing on the small Igbo town of Nnobi, Amadiume locates pre-colonial power in the goddess Idemili, who possessed certain women in order to make them her ekwe, or human representatives. The women this goddess chose were the most economically successful in the community—those who were prominent in the marketplace. And the surest way for a woman to become prominent in the marketplace was to take a few wives. These wives would manage the house and care for the children while their “female husband” focused on economic and political life—and again, those women who succeeded often gained access to considerable religious authority as well, becoming spokeswomen of the goddess.

Unsurprisingly, the first thing the British did after they had made significant inroads into the region was to ban all worship of the goddess and to insist that all households be composed of one man, one woman, and their biological children. From that moment on, a priestess or female husband was out of a job. From one angle, then, what the Anglican world is witnessing is not the imposition of some “primitive” mindset upon a “modern” Anglo-American Church, but rather, a redeployment of the modern code of gender and church hierarchy imposed upon West and East Africans at the turn of the century...
Rubenstein also identifies, correctly in my opinion, what it is that yokes the two groups that some African Anglican leaders, like Peter Akinola of Nigeria, consider to be the biggest threat to the Church. What is the common thread in Ankinola's defense of the Church against the dual threats of Islam and gay rights? A lack of a sufficient amount of machismo among Anglicans:

...What seems to connect the threat of homosexuality to the threat of Islam, then, is a crisis of Christian masculinity. It is not clear which came first—anxiety over virulent Western homosexuals or anxiety over violent African Muslims, but the two threats seem to echo and intensify one another...
We have certainly seen the result of Peter Akinola's understanding of what it means to be a "strong man." In "defense of the Church," he encouraged the incarceration of all gays. His "strong man" response to Islam was to incite violence against Muslims and be implicated in at least one massacre.

Akinola has now retired, but it appears that his successor is going to carry on the tradition of identifying Islam and the gays as the primary threats to the Church.

As a sidenote, in his inaugural address, linked above, Abp. OKoh made this curious comment:

...Do not be afraid of being called homophobic. It is a term designed to close down any expression of a contrary view. Respond by accusing them of gunaphobia – an inordinate fear of women and of relationships with women...
I would agree with the Archbishop on this point. I believe a fear of the feminine is indeed at the root of much of our disagreements, but perhaps not in the way he imagined this fear is manifested. To quote Nancy Myer Hopkins:

"What is driving the intensity of our current church infighting?" Is it really just about what people do sexually with each other?

Probably not. A more likely reason for a significant amount of the negativism is that same-sex relationships violate the rules laid down by all patriarchal cultures about how men and women should behave in relationship to one another. The same rules also narrowly define acceptable relationships between people of the same sex.

Looking through this lens, we can see that the offenses pile up rapidly. If a lesbian woman does not need a man to satisfy her, protect her and keep her in line, the threat of the feminine is there; if a gay man is able to access the feminine side of his being, his every move can be considered suspect and an affront to many. If long-term relationships between two people of the same sex toss the age-old formulas attached to male dominance and female submission out the window, what are we left with? And if we must allow people who are partnered in this way to live openly and with our blessing -- so that we can't pretend that this is not happening -- how offensive is that? It is only offensive if we continue to cling to a patriarchal framework which keeps the feminine in her "proper" place...

But, I'm now straying away from Professor Rubenstein's essay, which contains many more ideas worthy of discussion. Go read it. What other points jumped out at you?


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