The holidays are traditionally a time for reconciliation, but the Anglican church isn’t taking the lesson of their own religion to heart. As reported in Beliefnet and elsewhere, it is now official: the 77-million-member church is in the process of breaking apart over the issue of how to treat gay congregants.
Last week, two large, wealthy, historic Episcopal parishes in the state of Virginia – Truro Church and the Falls Church, which date back to colonial times and together have more than 4,000 members – voted overwhelmingly in favor of seceding from the American convocation and aligning themselves with a branch of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, led by ultra-conservative archbishop Peter Akinola. These defections, along with nine other Virginia congregations that also voted to secede, bring to about 250 the number of Anglican congregations that have broken with the American convocation and chosen instead to ally with more conservative convocations, usually from Africa. About 1,000 other American congregations have joined the Anglican Communion Network, a conservative organization that rejects church teachings on the treatment and ordination of gays (source). However, these new defections are among the most significant yet. The Episcopal diocese of Virginia has so far lost about 20% of its congregants, and the Beliefnet article notes that George Washington himself was once on the governing board of one of the two breakaways, the Falls Church.
The ongoing Anglican schism stems mainly from disagreement over the treatment of homosexual congregants. The church has been wracked with internal debate since 2003, when V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire became the first openly gay Anglican bishop, spurring a fierce argument between liberal and conservative congregations over whether out-of-the-closet and non-celibate gays can be fully equal and participating church members or even clergy, and whether the church should bless same-sex marriages. A lesser, though still divisive, issue concerns whether women should be permitted to become bishops, a debate inspired by Katharine Jefferts Schori‘s recently becoming the first-ever female head of the American Episcopal convocation. So far, seven of the 111 U.S. dioceses have rejected her authority.
The spilling over of this schism into the public sphere highlights, once again, the way religious conservatives consistently oppose granting basic human rights to disapproved minorities such as women and gays. But this statement does not do justice to the sick and outrageous depths of their prejudice. Consider the man under whose authority the breakaway churches have placed themselves, Peter Akinola. He is the presiding archbishop of one of the most populous branches of the Anglican Communion, the Anglican Church of Nigeria. Among Anglican convocations, the Nigerian branch has about 17 million members, which makes it the second-largest (second only to the Church of England). This means that Akinola is the direct head of about a quarter of the Anglican church. And while the religious right in general is not known for their friendliness toward gays, Akinola’s vicious, searing hatred makes him stand out even among them.
Lest I be accused of hyperbole, consider that Akinola has personally spoken out in favor of a draconian piece of legislation proposed in Nigeria that would criminalize 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” with up to five years’ imprisonment. Not only does this horrible law forbid essentially all political speech, activism and organization by gay men and women, it would make it illegal for a gay couple to eat out together in a restaurant or even to meet in their own home. Akinola has said that he “encourages the National Assembly to ratify the Bill prohibiting the legality of homosexuality since it is incongruent with the teachings of the Bible” (source).
Not even Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, as far as I am aware, have advocated that gay men and women be sent to prison for holding hands in public. And yet two of America’s largest and most influential Anglican churches have just voted – overwhelmingly, by margins of over 90% – to align themselves with a man who believes and advocates exactly this. And Akinola is not a lone wolf unrepresentative of Christianity in general. He is the spiritual head and leader of over 15 million Christians, plus a few thousand more now, and if not all of those people agree with his beliefs, they are evidently not bothered enough by them to reject his authority either.
The legal battle over who owns the property of the breakaway churches has only just begun, and will likely continue for a long time. But the moral issue has already been decided for all to see. Whatever superficial noises these groups may make about tolerance and loving one’s neighbor, their mask has been removed, and the ugliness beneath shows plainly. Apologists very often plead with outsiders not to judge the church itself by the hateful words of a few, but the defense cannot be made that this is some isolated fluke. If a person this radically anti-gay could become the head of this many believers, there must be a very substantial number who share his beliefs. In short, the hatred is not an aberration; it is pervasive. Unless Christians take a hard look at their own belief system and ask why it is so conducive to hating people who are different, the Anglican split may only be the first of many to come.