By Stephen Bates, the author of God’s Own Country: Power and the Religious Right in the USA (THE GUARDIAN, 24/06/08):
Maybe it’s being in a company of saints – a most un-Anglican communion of the like-minded. But the rhetoric of the gathering of conservative churchmen in Jerusalem seeking to wrest control of worldwide Anglicanism from the woolly nuances of Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the wicked, gay-friendly liberalism of the Church of England and US Episcopal Church is already spiralling upwards on a vicious current of hot air.
Two days into the great realignment, we’ve already had the archbishops of Nigeria and Uganda denying that gays are ever persecuted in their countries – and failing to find the words to condemn the violence if they are; voices calling for biblically lethal punishment for homosexuals; and lip-smacking assertions that the old church has fallen prey to apostasy, brokenness and turmoil, in its attempt to “acquiesce to destructive modern, cultural and political dictates”.
Adding to the fervour, Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester (who flies in today), has announced his tender conscience will not allow him to associate with those Americans who ordained the openly (as opposed to privately) gay bishop Gene Robinson five years ago. He also says he will boycott next month’s gathering of the world’s Anglican bishops, called by Williams in Canterbury.
You may find it hard to recognise the C of E in all this. It runs counter to most of the tolerant traditions Anglicanism espouses as part of its constitutional accommodation with the secular state that founded it. The trouble with the coalition of interests meeting in the Middle East – in defiance of the wishes of local bishops who thought more religious conflict was the last thing Jerusalem needed – is they have Got Religion.
Theirs is an insurgency united in what they don’t like – homosexuality – and elevating it to a litmus test of orthodoxy in a way that other divisive theological issues – divorce, say, or women’s ordination – have not been. The thing is that many conservatives know women – some have even married them – and not a few of the righteous have been divorced as well. They don’t know gay people, and what they think they know of them is viscerally distasteful.
Had things stopped there, it might be no more than a muttered grievance; but what is happening is a power struggle in which the conservatives of the US church – and, to a lesser extent, English evangelicals – have summoned up the developing world to seize the church from the forces of liberalism and relativism. If the battle over gays is lost, they say, everything is lost. The visit of many African bishops to the conference has been facilitated by US money.
African moral outrage is necessary, not only because they have the burgeoning congregations, and no necessity of consulting their flocks through bloody-minded synods, but also because the conservatives fear their message is lost on western congregations. They are puzzled that their fervour is met with indifference, even though, in the words of the principal of Wycliffe Hall, the Oxford theological college, 95% of the population is in danger of damnation.
Homosexuality is a useful unifier for conservative flocks. The little-noticed irony is that those meeting in Jerusalem agree on very little else: some American conservatives are more high church than the Pope, whereas the conservative archbishop of Sydney says he could never see himself attending mass.
Despite the huffing, they maintain they don’t want to leave Anglicanism: in the old evangelical phrase, it’s a convenient boat to fish from. But many other Anglicans would like to see them go.