A match made in heaven

The Guardian: commentisfree
Stephen Bates
September 22, 2006 11:01 AM

The news that Desmond Tutu, the South African church leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was sounded out about becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in preference to George Carey in 1990 is likely to cause liberal members of the Church of England to sob quietly into their cocoa. If only, they’ll be muttering.

Since the revelation comes in Tutu’s authorised biography, Rabble-rouser for Peace, written by his longtime press officer John Allen, I think we can assume it’s true. The idea was stymied because as a South African Tutu could not swear allegiance to the Queen, as is required by the Established Church of England. That is clearly a much more important priority for a Christian leader in this country than any question of mere belief.

How different the Anglican Communion might have been with Tutu at the helm. The biography makes clear that Tutu does not share the visceral antipathy towards gays exhibited by his fellow African bishops further north in the Dark Continent. It is this that is currently tearing the worldwide Anglican communion apart.

This very week African church leaders have been gathered in Rwanda, where they will be gearing up to denounce the liberal US Episcopal Church yet again for its election of a gay bishop three years ago and the Americans’ endorsement of a liberal presiding bishop (a woman, no less!) at their convention in Ohio in June.

The African bishops will all be aware that last week their largest and noisiest member, the Nigerian Anglican Church endorsed a statement affirming its commitment “to the total rejection of the evil of homosexuality, which is a perversion of human dignity” and encouraging the country’s national assembly to ratify a bill which would outlaw homosexuals and make it illegal even to speak on their behalf. This is a clear violation of the Anglican Communion’s own policy towards homosexuals (as well as an offence against Christian charity) but, as far as I am aware, no one has been calling for the Nigerian Church to be expelled.

Tutu himself, from a more liberal African Anglican tradition, has long been firmly against such stigmatisation and intolerance, and much more robust than most English bishops in his defence of gay people. After the meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 adopted a hardline motion against homosexuality – largely at the behest of the Africans – Tutu wrote privately to Carey saying it made him ashamed to be an Anglican. He has also told his biographer that if the Africans don’t like the inclusiveness of churches such as those in the US and Canada “they have the freedom to leave”. Such outspokenness, as opposed to the appeasement that is more usually on offer from white Anglican leaders, should be welcomed.

Nigeria’s primate, Archbishop Peter Akinola, recently appointed a British-born conservative evangelical, the Rev Martyn Minns, currently rector of an Episcopal church in Virginia, as a bishop acting for the Nigerian Church in the US. It would be interesting to know whether Bishop Minns endorses the Nigerian position that homosexuality should be illegal.

Currently a number of US dioceses are demanding alternative archiepiscopal oversight because they cannot stomach the idea of a liberal, female presiding bishop being elected. I would make the modest suggestion that Archbishop Akinola should be appointed to that role. I am sure he would be very congenial to them and he would certainly offer them firm leadership, with no tolerance of dissent. They could then walk apart from more liberal Anglicans safe in their own theological certainty and self-righteousness.

The conservative British theologian Gerald Bray, now professor of divinity in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote (pdf) a little while ago: “Faced with a choice between a white American homosexual bishop and a black-skinned African Archbishop, there has been no hesitation … the celebrant may look more like the church janitor than like any of his worshippers in the pews, but it does not matter.” It sounds like a marriage made in heaven and I do hope Archbishop Rowan Williams will consider it. He could solve a number of problems at a stroke that way.