Rebuff this mad, bad clique with a bullying version of the Gospel
The Nigerian-led effort to unseat the Archbishop of Canterbury over gay sex is part of a drive to outbid fundamentalist Islam
“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." "God created two persons - male and female. Now the world of homosexuals has created a third - a homosexual, neither male nor female - a strange two-in-one human." Welcome to the mad, bad world of Peter Jasper Akinola, like Jesus a former carpenter, now the Archbishop of Nigeria and ringleader of a clique of archbishops trying to unseat Rowan Williams from Canterbury.
In marked contrast to the previous generation of Anglican archbishops in Africa - Desmond Tutu and Walter Maculu - Akinola has been cleverly exploiting cultural differences between the more liberal north and the more conservative south, particularly over homosexuality, as leverage in an unprecedented takeover bid for the Anglican franchise.
Just last month he made his most audacious move, rewriting the Anglican Church of Nigeria's constitution to exclude all references to "communion with the see of Canterbury" - the means by which Anglicanism has always been defined. And this week Williams received a poisonous letter, questioning his ability to lead the communion, from Akinola and an uncertain number of fellow archbishops (at least one of whom had his name added without his consent).
When Henry VIII invented the Church of England as a handy way of sorting out his messy social life, he could hardly have expected to be founding a denomination of Christianity that would come to have some 70 million adherents spread across the globe. During the 19th century, public-schoolboy missionaries would ride alongside the armies of the British empire to plant Anglican theology throughout the globe. It proved a remarkably successful export. For while the mother church continues to shrink, African Anglicanism is rapidly expanding. In the 1970s there were 5 million Anglicans in Nigeria; there are now 18 million - and that figure that is expected to double by 2025.
Such is their numerical success at home that their ambition has become global. For as the power in Christianity shifts from north to south, so Akinola is encouraging a new set of African missionaries to return what seems a claustrophobic and bullying version of the Gospel back to the Godless north. Rowan Williams has warned the assembly of southern archbishops of "crude, threatening proselytising" - to which they came over all innocent with the reply: "None of us would support such an approach during these critical times, and we wonder to whom you were referring?" Yet it remains Akinola's express aim to reverse the "satanic attack" upon the church by liberals such as me who believe sexuality, and gay sexuality no less, to be a gift from God.
Bridgeheads for the assault on the Church of England spring up almost daily. The deeply conservative retired vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, the Rev Sandy Millar - he of Alpha Course fame, sometimes known as the vicar of Harrods - is to be made a bishop in the Church of Uganda. Yet, bizarrely, he will operate in London as an assistant bishop in the diocese of Kampala - a bit like an ecclesiastical version of an absentee landlord. An evangelical church in Wimbledon has recently brought in an unknown South African bishop because its own bishop is refusing to condemn civil partnerships for clergy. As Rowan Williams struggles with seemingly infinite Christian charity to hold it all together, Peter Akinola and his friends are out to break it apart and run off with the pieces.
So why aren't liberals fighting back? In a recent sermon, the Rev Canon Marilyn McCord Adams, regius professor of divinity at Oxford University, offers a view few are prepared to admit: "One whispered reason why many personally convinced liberals do not act is 'postcolonial guilt'.
"I agree that colonial condescension - whether of the Victorian or the more recent economic variety - is a grievous sin. We were, and are, arrogant in promoting European culture as normative worldwide. True repentance does not come through role reversal, however, in which the oppressed get a turn to lord it over their former rulers. Our church is not called to take its punishment by letting Archbishop Akinola make Nigeria normative for Europe and North America instead.
"When the Church of England takes responsibility for keeping the Anglican communion together, she is continuing to act as the ecclesial wing of a colonising power, still shouldering 'the white man's burden'. The responsibility has become agonising because she has conceded the authority to dictate policy to some of the former colonies who are turning it against others, perhaps even Mother Canterbury herself!"
It is observed, in Akinola's defence, that his real concern with a gay bishop in New Hampshire is that it lands a propaganda coup to Muslims keen to depict the Anglican church as the bastard child of the sexually decadent west. Indeed one reason Rowan Williams is wary of expressing his own views on homosexuality is that he believes liberal pronouncements from Canterbury may translate into lives being put at risk in northern Nigeria, where Islam and Christianity are locked in an often-violent struggle.
The former president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Sunday Mbang, has commented that "most of these people who kill people come to our churches"; that "they will walk very holy and shout holy, holy, and you don't know them". The tragedy is that while Rowan Williams keeps his own counsel, Akinola is playing a dangerous game of poker, trying to outbid fundamentalist Islam with fundamentalist Christianity.
What does all this matter? After all, the Anglican communion is a product of western imperialism and impacts very little upon ordinary churchgoers in Britain. Who cares about the commonwealth at prayer? In fact, millions in Africa and Asia, and most of us in the Church of England, care a great deal. The Anglican communion provides a vehicle through which smaller churches in often-ignored parts of the world can have an international voice. These churches are well placed to become important structures through which the implementation of the millennium development goals is monitored. The fracturing of Anglicanism puts a huge network of aid, goodwill and mutual understanding at considerable risk. In a world dangerously divided by religious differences, Akinola's new-look Anglicanism is ready to create yet another fault line to set believers against each other.
Ironically, the person most optimistic about the future of the Anglican communion turns out to be Gene Robinson, the gay Bishop of New Hampshire whose consecration sparked off this whole fight. Last week he told me: "God is in charge and God is good. Therefore everything will be all right." I guess Rowan Williams thinks something similar. I wish I had their faith.
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Dr. Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above essay is reproduced here by permission.