Human Rights

For the Soul of the Church

Why the new war in the Episcopal Church is over race and sexuality.
When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, we had the Bible in our hand, and they had the land.

—Jomo Kenyatta, Kenyan independence leader and first president

Harold Lewis, an African-American priest who once served as national director of black ministries for the Episcopal Church, finds an irony in the fact that white, conservative Episcopalians collaborate closely with African and Asian bishops, but, “coming as they often do from lily-white environments, they have little by way of relationships with African Americans.”


The Episcopal Church is a small but significant Protestant denomination that has struggled mightily with sexuality, race and authority—and the reverberations have been felt across the world. This battle has played out most visibly in the wake of the election in June 2003 of a white, openly gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as a bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

Lewis and many other prominent African-American Episcopalians supported Robinson’s election. But many members of their congregations are opposed to gays in the church, reflecting a sharp division on this issue in the black community here and abroad. That dissension, combined with the sense of many people of color that racism in the church is being ignored while gay and lesbian issues are being addressed, has opened a wedge that conservatives have exploited.


Lewis now heads Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, Pa., a liberal parish (congregation) in one of the church’s most conservative dioceses (regional groupings of Episcopal congregations). Robert Duncan, a white bishop who heads the Pittsburgh diocese, was a vociferous critic of Robinson’s ordination. As part of his work with conservatives who oppose gays and lesbians in church leadership, Duncan serves as president of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, a traditionalist effort to reclaim the church from its “liberal leanings.” The Network, founded in January 2004 by four white, male bishops in response to Robinson’s election and other recent events, has sought to have the Episcopal Church kicked out of its worldwide church body and replaced by the Network. And to do so, in an unusual twist with racial implications, they went to people of color — abroad.


The denomination has seen new alliances built between global church leaders, often with the appearance of fighting racism and discrimination, but for varying agendas. In Pittsburgh in 1999, in partnership with the evangelical international relief organization World Vision, Duncan initiated a diocesan project to support Rwandan refugees. To help make the connection, refrigerator magnets with images of Rwandan children were provided to participating church members. In his travels around the diocese, Duncan frequently pointed to the magnets as evidence of the diocese’s commitment to eradicate racism. “It’s doing nothing of the kind; it may even be perpetuating racism,” stated Lewis, arguing that a churchperson may point to one of their magnets to “prove” their anti-racism commitment, when in fact they may never have had a black person in their home. Emmanuel Kolini, the archbishop of the Rwandan church, visited Pittsburgh to support this project, but as Lewis noted, at the end of the day, “The Kolinis of the world are going home. I’m not; I live here.” In November 2004, the diocese ended its Rwandan project, and launched a new one in Uganda with Henry Orombi, the Anglican archbishop of Uganda, who has been one of the most vocal critics of gays and lesbians in the worldwide church.

Infighting Among Progressives

While some progressive activists have worked tirelessly to build coalitions across lines of injustice, others have seemed to give up on their international church colleagues. Liberal, white U.S. bishops have been accused of intellectual elitism in discussing their overseas partners. Local church members have also been complicit: at a San Francisco meeting in the late 1990s, white participants talked about “those African bishops” as the problem that needed to be solved. And at a May 2002 gathering of queer religious activists in New York City, a white, gay Episcopalian summarized the Anglican world’s problems as that of Africans “monkeying around” in the rest of the church. To the shock of some in the room, he finished his presentation by saying, “All I have to say to these bishops is: Go back to the jungle where you came from.”

On the other side of the coin, many people of color have found themselves needing to condemn the positions of some in their communities. “I have been very disappointed with my black brothers and sisters,” said Jayne Oasin, an African-American Episcopal priest who has principal responsibility for anti-racism programs at the national office. “They don’t connect the dots of oppression to realize that when you scratch a homophobe, or an anti-Semite, the next level down is a racist.”

Lyn Headley-Deavours, the justice missioner for the “The Oasis” in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, echoed Oasin’s comments: “In the black community, there’s an awful lot of assuming that ‘it doesn’t apply to us.’” She linked this to internalized oppression and offered sadly, “I hate the shame and self-hatred and breeding of further oppression that is so destructive.”

Oasin, Headley-Deavours and several other black leaders interviewed for this article all named a sensitive issue: significant numbers of gays in black churches remain silenced. Noting serious concerns about safety, these leaders indicated that many black church leaders are gay but not “out,” and that homophobia is sometimes voiced at the expense, and amidst the silencing, of the most dedicated members of their congregations.

As progressive Episcopalians have stepped back from their international relationships, perhaps seeking to mend the rifts at home, some overseas church leaders warned what the outcome would be. Khotso Makhulu, a Botswanan and then-archbishop of the Province of Central Africa, said, “Let not the intolerance of a variety of contexts inexorably lead us to [churchwide] intolerance, which if unchecked, will find us with a band of vigilantes and fundamentalists.”

Conservative international Anglicans and U.S. Episcopalians have jumped at the opportunity to exploit this rift. Funding streams were created to support churchesin impoverished nations. Bishops were flown across the world to meet with one another. Each hand patted the other’s back. While most people argue that each community is seeking to take advantage of the other, an African priest who is deeply involved in partnership work between the U.S. and Africa, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, described the process as less quid pro quo and more as “[W]hite men are using these [international] people to do their dirty games.”

Black leaders in the U.S. express a combination of frustration and resentment at the alliance. “Some of these African leaders do not remember that these U.S. conservative friends were not there for them during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. They were not there for them to fight AIDS when that struggle began,” argued another black foreign priest who works throughout the African continent and demanded anonymity. “Their struggle for power in the church prevents them from analyzing who these partners are.”

A “Liberal” Church?

In progressive circles, it’s been tempting in recent years to think that Christianity is either an archaic vestige of a colonial era—an institution that has been on the decline and will soon disappear—or perhaps it lives on as the realm of born-again Pentecostals, people who have an axe to grind against the social and political mainstream. On the contrary, Christianity is still the mainstream in the U.S.: 85 percent of the nation’s population claims to be Christian, and 60 percent of the country is enrolled in churches, according to respected sources (World Christian Database and Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, respectively). And Christians encompass a broad cross-section of the country, with evangelicals forming only a portion of the community.

For the past two years, the Episcopal Church has captured international headlines in mainstream media, tied to what many see as a new phase in the American culture wars. This has been an unusual amount of attention in a fairly secularized modern society, but in the long view of history, it is comfortable territory for the denomination. The Episcopal Church is a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion—it represents one of 38 provinces covering more than 150 countries across the globe. The “mother church” of this global body is the Church of England, which played a key role in the imperialist spread of the British Empire.

Since colonial times, many U.S. political leaders and captains of industry have been Episcopalians, including 11 of 41 presidents. That legacy continues today, despite the church representing less than one percent of the nation’s population (with approximately 2.2 million members). Some of the most right-wing politicians in Washington, including Senate hawks like Ted Stevens and John McCain, sit alongside 40 other Episcopalians in Congress, while an Episcopal priest and former senator, John Danforth, just stepped down as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Just over a decade ago, during the George H.W. Bush administration, it seemed as if the entire military junta were Episcopalian men: the president, Donald Rumsfeld, James Baker, George Schultz, Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, Oliver North, Dick Armey, and the list goes on. (The current president, George W. Bush, was baptized as an Episcopalian but had a “born-again” experience that led to him to convert to the United Methodist Church.)

Despite those conservative, mostly white voices, the Episcopal Church has made modest inroads at reaching out to people of color. Alongside long-time African-American and Native-American congregations, many of which have existed for 100 to 200 years, now sit dozens of new Latino and Asian-American worshipping communities that were started in the 1980s and ’90s.

Reflecting the growth of communities of color in the church, slowly but surely there were subsequent changes in decision-making positions too. Following the civil rights era, a handful of black priests were chosen to lead historically white, powerful parishes and dioceses. This was a significant transition from their historic role of serving only “colored” churches. In the mid-1970s, women were ordained to the priesthood. This shocking development precipitated a backlash that led many conservatives to exit the denomination. Next, in 1979, a new prayer book featured contemporary language about God and humanity, further angering conservatives. And finally, in 1989, the Episcopal Church opened its most prestigious institution—the sacred, historic order of bishops—to a woman. Barbara Harris, an African-American corporate executive from Philadelphia who had become a leading advocate for racial, economic and gender justice in the church and society, became the first female bishop in Anglicanism.

Nowadays, people of color occupy prominent positions in the church’s structure: Thirty-four percent of the current members of the national Executive Council, which serves as a governing board for the denomination, and about 20 percent of the national staff with managerial positions are people of color—both are numbers that far exceed their proportional representation in the church at large.

In August 2003, the church met for its national General Convention—a decision-making body of bishops, clergy and lay leaders—held every three years. More than 250 resolutions were passed in parliamentary processes, but two controversial decisions stood out from the long list. One resolution supported local faith communities as they “explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.” The second confirmed the election of Robinson, who lived in a committed relationship with a male partner, to be New Hampshire’s next bishop. Both resolutions passed with clear majorities. For the outvoted community of church conservatives, these decisions were seen as the culmination of decades of “oppression” of conservative theology and tantamount to a declaration of war.

Their response was swift and condemnatory. And in contrast to the battles of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, U.S. conservative Episcopalians found two new, important allies. One provided the money and resources to organize and tell the world what they believed. The other provided a legitimating voice for their distress.

Follow the Money, If You Can

In the 1980s and early ’90s, a new force emerged. The Institute for Religion & Democracy (IRD), a neoconservative Christian think tank well connected with members of the Reagan/Bush administration, was founded and funded with millions of dollars from right-wing individuals and foundations.

Emboldened by the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by fundamentalists in the 1970s and ’80s—whereby moderate Baptists were removed from national leadership positions and seminaries through a systemic, step-by-step process that sought to control both power and theological direction—the IRD made that conservative success story its mandate. In 2000, the IRD prepared a strategic plan known as “Reforming America’s Churches Project 2001-2004.” The internal document outlined a process of discrediting the leadership of three primary Protestant denominations: the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. They would work to expose the church’s “reflexive alliance with the political left” and to close many of their national offices.


The IRD proposed to work hand-in-glove with the American Anglican Council, a collaborative of “renewal” groups that had been resisting changes in the church. Over a period of a decade, on average one new “traditionalist” Anglican/Episcopal organization had been conceived each year, usually with overlapping names of leaders and sponsors. The Council, founded in 1996 by two former Reagan Justice Department officials, an Episcopal bishop and the director of IRD, brought together most of the major players—a veritable rogue’s gallery of reactionary activists, theologians and disaffected male priests, all with an axe to grind against the Episcopal Church. It was a fortuitous time to create this new coalition.


Christianity’s Changing Face

Led by the Council, white U.S. conservatives forged a partnership with international church leaders. For conservatives had noticed another important statistic: as the end of the 20th century approached, an estimated two billion people around the world claimed to follow Christianity.

In his recent book The Next Christendom (2002, Oxford University Press), author Philip Jenkins mused, “Soon, the phrase ‘white Christian’ may sound a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’ Such people exist, but a slight eccentricity is implied.” Jenkins is among many scholars who propose that the stereotype of Christianity as a Western religion is now out of date.

Jenkins suggests Christianity has turned into a “post-colonial religion” because of a combination of factors, such as the indigenization of Christianity into many cultures around the world and the translation of the Bible into hundreds of languages. As well, Christianity’s changing face may be due to the relative secularization and declining birth rate in Europe and North America, compared to the rapid population growth of developing nations and the conversion of millions by evangelicals. According to Jenkins, “By 2050, the global total of Anglicans will be approaching 150 million, of whom only a tiny minority will be white Europeans.”

While progressive Christian activists had centered their attention on winning justice battles in their home church, conservatives paid close attention to these changing global demographics.

In 1998, a meeting of 800 Anglican bishops from around the world was held in England. Titled the “Lambeth Conference of Bishops,” the gathering is hosted every ten years to bring together the church’s most visible leaders to build relationships with one another and issue a wide range of statements on social and theological issues to the worldwide church. International Anglican meetings like the Lambeth Conference are important for maintaining “church unity,” since a broad range of worship practices and leadership styles exists around the world. One of Anglicanism’s defining characteristics has been its embrace of the “via media,” a phrase that captures the “middle way” and the church’s historic attempts to embrace an inclusive set of beliefs. As Lambeth 1998 began, for the first time bishops from the global south realized en masse that they outnumbered those from the North. There were exciting aspects to this numerical shift, including the prospect that critical issues like the international debt crisis and interfaith concerns could be addressed in creative, new ways. Sadly, the conference proved divisive, as two other topics received disproportionate attention: the presence of women bishops for the first time and, particularly, a ferocious debate over human sexuality.

In one well-publicized incident, a Nigerian bishop engaged in a shouting match with a white, gay English deacon, condemning the “lifestyle choice” of gays and lesbians. Barbara Harris, attending her first Lambeth Conference since becoming a bishop in 1989, announced to the press that she was relieved she’d never have to go to another one and that “the vitriolic, fundamentalist rhetoric of some African, Asian and other bishops of color, who were in the majority, was in my opinion reflective of the European and North American missionary influence propounded in the Southern Hemisphere nations during the 18th, l9th and early 20th centuries.” Coming from a prophetic black activist, this was harsh and unusually public criticism of fellow people of color, but Harris minced no words about her sense that many bishops from developing nations were suffering from a form of internalized oppression. Their theological arguments, she said, were based on a sense of truth “that not only had been handed to their forebears, but had been used to suppress them.”

Divide and Conquer

At this point, all the players are identifying as victims. According to Oasin, this means that everyone identifies primarily with a social location that permits the person to speak in opposition to power. Liberals believe that African bishops hold a level of power—since, after all, they have risen to the elite status of the episcopacy (the order of bishops). Conservatives in the U.S. also believe they are being persecuted, since they have lost the trappings of power they once held in the church. International conservatives feel they lack power, since their explosive numerical growth has not translated into either increased leadership in the global church or financial resources, and they see gays and lesbians as being part of the U.S. power elite. Both conservative constituencies believe that the rise of Islam in many cultures is cause for alarm and a reason that an “orthodox” version of the Christian faith is necessary to keep their religious communities safe, both politically and spiritually. Ironically, Anglican conservatives here and abroad differ significantly on war and economic globalization concerns: While U.S. conservatives tend to support American military and corporate interests abroad, many international Anglicans have seen sexuality issues as another form of U.S. imperialism and connect it to the government’s foreign policy decisions vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. They argue that the U.S. church’s justification of its recent decisions was “because we can do it,” the same way that they see the Bush administration’s political doctrine.

Although progressive U.S. Episcopal organizations have built alliances among their leaders, this model has not translated well to either the grassroots level or international partnerships. In part, as both Oasin and Headley-Deavours said, thisis because many constituents create a “hierarchy of oppression.” Gays and lesbians still seek full inclusion in the church and see that as primary. Communities of color continue to point to the ongoing struggle against institutional racism, which they argue needs to be addressed before any other oppression. Women find they are not welcome into leadership roles in many parts of the church and are frustrated that there are U.S. dioceses (not to mention one-half of the worldwide church) that still won’t ordain them. And few of these targeted groups have managed to develop sustainable relationships with international allies, who have a host of other peace and justice concerns.

Ultimately, interviews with church leaders around the world suggest that sexuality is only a minor source of the conflict in the Anglican world. Gay and lesbian issues serve, instead, as a smokescreen for the primary tensions concerning exclusion and power. The “homosexuality agenda,” as conservatives call it, is used as a divide-and-conquer tactic, sometimes setting people of color against one another and confusing progressives as to who their allies are. Jenny Te Paa, a Maori woman who serves as dean of the College of St. John the Evangelist in Auckland, New Zealand, argued, “The racializing of sexual politics is playing right into the hands of conservatives ... partly because white liberal capitulation to the ‘cause of color’ is also acting as a very effective silencing mechanism.”


The continuing imbalance of power in the international church adds to the dissension. “Unless we solve power-sharing—or ‘authority’—there will be no peace and justice in the Anglican Communion,” explained one of the anonymous black priests. “African church leaders are saying to the Western church, ‘At one point in the past, you had the numbers and the resources. Now we have the numbers, and you still have the resources.’”

There are those who believe that the Anglican Communion will soon split, with “liberal” churches of the North being shunted aside by the growing churches of the South. That seems unlikely, since there are too many differences of belief and practice in each part of the world for a simple break to occur. There is, after all, no homogenous South just as there is no monolithic North. As Te Paa wondered, “Where do the assumptions about the Global South leave indigenous peoples? ... [M]any of us are geographically located within the ‘Global South,’ and yet many of us certainly do not hold to a conservative [sexuality] agenda at all—we are too busy fighting for justice across a myriad of political fronts. For indigenous people to be sidetracked into fighting a single identity issue with such undue intensity is simply foolishness.”


In December 2004, the church’s challenges with race, sexuality and power played out one more time. The next Lambeth Conference will be held in 2008, and plans had been announced for it to be held for the first time in Africa. Cape Town was to have been the site, providing an historic opportunity for Anglicanism to visibly claim its domain in the Global South. However, the South African province—which has many openly gay priests—had opposed the anti-gay lobby. This earned them the enmity of fellow Africans and other leaders in the South, and support was withdrawn for their bid to host Lambeth 2008. Instead, the conference will be held back in Canterbury, England, where a divided church will again seek to find “the middle way.”
Ethan Vesely-Flad is executive director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company and editor of The Witness, a social justice publication founded in 1917 to address issues of faith, conscience and justice. The Witness publishes voices of progressive Christian and other faith-based activists from across the globe online at www.thewitness.org.
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