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More at stake

How sexual politics in the Episcopal Church affects churches in Africa

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

A Sudanese priest recently had an eye-opening introduction to the U.S. Episcopal Church. John, a clergyman from the Episcopal Church of Sudan, sent an inquiry to the "justice missioner" on the website of the Diocese of Newark. The justice missioner responded to John's email and informed him that her focus was advocacy for people with disabilities, people of color, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community.

Although fluent in English, John found this language incomprehensible. He knew Americans talked openly about homosexuality, but he was bewildered by the terms "transgender" and "intersex." John asked the justice missioner if she prayed for healing of individuals with these disorders. She informed him that they didn't need healing, only "full inclusion" in the church. John told her he was sorry that the diocese was leaving people in sexual brokenness. He urged her to bring them to transformation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. With that, he never heard from the justice missioner again.

John is a former "Lost Boy," one of some 33,000 southern Sudanese children who fled attacks by government-sponsored militias during Sudan's more than two decades of civil war. He survived a three-year trek from Sudan to Ethiopia to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Now he is the pastor of over 1,000 refugees at Kakuma.

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John assumed that a church justice office would focus on human-rights issues like genocide in Sudan, religious persecution, poverty, hunger, and human trafficking. What he did not know was that in the U.S. Episcopal Church, affirming one's sexual orientation is as much a justice and human-rights issue as genocide.

"There is rather more at stake here than the issue of sexual politics," writes Andrew Proud, Area Bishop of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, in an article on the Anglican crisis for Trinity Journal for Theology and Mission. In fact, one church's human-rights issue is creating another church's human-rights crisis. By pushing sexual politics, Episcopal church leaders are compromising the churches' witness abroad, exposing Christian brothers and sisters to violence, and unwittingly aiding and abetting the Islamization of Africa and elsewhere.

At the Episcopal Church's 2003 General Convention where deputies and bishops voted to approve the election of openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, Josiah Idowu-Fearon, then Bishop of Kaduna, Nigeria, warned that departing from biblical teaching would hurt the churches' witness. Islamists had slaughtered thousands of Christians in Idowu-Fearon's diocese, and Christians in Nigeria are willing to die for their faith, he said. But to be undermined by Western abandonment of biblical authority is a crushing blow.

Idowu-Fearon tried gently to exhort the church to "put off the old self," and "put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." The Anglican Communion family takes the U.S. Episcopal Church very seriously, he said, quoting the old adage, "When America sneezes, the whole world catches a cold." But his words angered some convention attendees: "Why these thinly veiled words of intolerance and exclusion at the largest gathering of Convention?" said one.

U.S. church leaders hoped that with time and never-ending "dialogue" they would wear down the resistance to their departure from orthodoxy. They are mistaken. As Daniel Deng Bul, Archbishop of Sudan, said: "We reject homosexual practice as contrary to biblical teaching and can accept no place for it within ECS (the Episcopal Church of Sudan)." Deng Bul said Christians in Sudan "are called infidels by the Islamic world when they hear our brothers and sisters from the Christian world talking about same-sex [relationships] to be blessed." When Muslims link the churches in Sudan with the churches that have left biblical teaching on homosexuality, this gives them a way to say that Christians are evil: "It will give them the upper hand to kill our people," the archbishop warned.

Those in the Anglican Communion who make sexuality a justice issue claim that "salvation does not come about through change in individual lives, but through the ending of unjust structures and attitudes within society," said Andrew Proud. Ironically, it is Christians in the Islamic world-those most vulnerable to unjust structures and attitudes-who provide the most powerful witness to refute that claim.

-Faith J.H. McDonnell is the Director of Religious Liberty Programs at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (

Faith J.H. McDonnell
Faith J.H. McDonnell


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