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Lessons from Lambeth

International | Third World bishops endure insult but protect orthodoxy from injury; homosexual advances in Anglicanism turned back at once-a-decade clergy conference

Issue: "Postmodern politics," Sept. 12, 1998

Beleaguered conservatives in the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church cheered the news out of England this summer. An overwhelming majority of the world's Anglican bishops had overcome back-room arm-twisting and bureaucratic political maneuvers to deliver a message to liberals in the West: Homosexual practice "is incompatible with Scripture," thus bishops "cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions, nor the ordination of those involved in same-gender unions."

The action came toward the end of the three-week-long Lambeth Conference in July, which every 10 years brings together bishops from 38 Anglican denominations in the Anglican Communion. They represent an estimated 70 million members in more than 100 countries. Women's ordination was the hot-button issue at the last Lambeth; homosexuality took the spotlight at this year's 13th edition of the conference. Resolutions adopted at Lambeth are not binding on the member churches but can wield considerable influence in member churches as a point of reference.

Conservatives in America's Episcopal Church have been trying without success for years to stop the ordination of open homosexuals. The floodgates were opened wide when a church court two years ago dismissed charges against retired bishop Walter Righter for ordaining a homosexual. The court said the church had no core doctrine against such ordinations.

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Such actions led soon-to-retire bishop John Spong of Newark, one of the church's most liberal prelates, to boast in a church newspaper interview on the eve of Lambeth: "I now have 30 out-of-the-closet gay priests-the only difference between our diocese and others is that we are honest about it."

Flushed with recent successes, Integrity, a 2,500-member group of homosexual activists and supporters in the Episcopal Church, began laying plans more than a year ago to win some sort of benevolent nod toward homosexuals at Lambeth. But as the conference approached, it became clear that large numbers of Bible-quoting bishops in Africa, Asia, and South America were intent on pursuing an opposite course. Alarmed, gay-friendly bishops in the West nixed the pro-homosexual idea and adopted a defensive strategy. They and Anglican leaders anxious to keep the lid on at Lambeth agreed the best outcome would be a bland, middle-of-the-road resolution affirming traditional marriage and chastity while condemning "homophobia."

But Bishop Spong did not help the campaign for blandness. In a July 10 interview with the Church of England newspaper, he said of Christians in Africa: "They've moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They've yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we've had to face in the developing world. That's just not on their radar screen." And if the African and Caribbean bishops are upset by his remarks, he said, "that's too bad: I'm not going to cease to be a 20th-century person for fear of offending someone in the Third World." The interview was published under this title: "African Christians? They're just a step up from witchcraft. What Bishop Spong had to say about his fellow Christians."

A furor erupted among the bishops following publication of the story. Presiding Bishop Griswold and other conference leaders huddled with Bishop Spong. At first, the New Jersey prelate denied making the statements to the reporter, Andrew Carey, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then Bishop Spong was shown transcripts of the recorded interview.

Finally, on July 28, Bishop Spong issued an indirect apology of sorts in a conference news release titled, "Bishop Spong apologizes for perceived insult to Africans." He said he did not intend to denigrate the African bishops or their churches by his remarks. He said his point was to underscore the cultural differences between the church in the developed and developing worlds, requiring different forms of communication. In saying that, "I've been heard to insult Africans, for which I am really sorry." He agreed "superstitious" had been "an unfortunate" word choice, but he had used it to refer to African views on theological issues, not to African people.

During the conference, held at Kent University near Canterbury, about 750 bishops were scattered among four main discussion groups and various subgroups. Their main task was to adapt prewritten drafts into position papers and resolutions on an array of topics, from international debt to relations with Muslims. The discussion sessions were closed to the press.

In the 60-member subsection on sexuality, Africans led the way in amending the "safe" draft resolution written by section leader Duncan Buchanan, a bishop from Johannesburg. Careful wording reflected conservative concerns related to homosexuality but in restrained tones that would increase chances of acceptance. As balance, liberals won inclusion of a passage assuring homosexuals "that they are loved by God." The amended resolution won approval with about 80 percent of the votes in both the subsection and main group.

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