doctrine

Anglican beat goes on

The career of Bishop Catherine Roskam of the Diocese of New York has been built on her skills as a cross-cultural ambassador for the modern Episcopal Church.

She led the International Concerns Committee of her denomination's executive council, helped create her diocese's Global Women's Fund and has worked as a consultant on issues of cultural sensitivity. In some circles, she is known as the bishop who dared to rap during a "Hip Hop Mass" a few years ago in the Bronx.

"My sistas and brothas, all my homies and peeps, stay up -- keep your head up, holla back and go forth and tell it like it is," proclaimed the bishop, in her benediction.

Thus, the diminutive, white-haired assistant bishop was an unlikely figure to inspire bold, angry headlines during the recent Lambeth Conference of bishops from the global Anglican Communion. This 20-day gathering had been carefully planned by the archbishop of Canterbury and his staff to focus on prayer, Bible study and small-group sessions called "Indabas" -- a Zulu term for tribal meetings -- in private settings that did not include journalists.

It was especially important not to inflame already painful disputes between Third World traditionalists and liberals in the United States, Canada, England and elsewhere.

Then, during planned discussions of domestic violence, Roskam spoke out on an unlikely topic -- bishops who beat their wives.

"We have 700 men here. Do you think any of them beat their wives? Chances are they do," argued Roskam, in The Lambeth Witness, a daily newsletter for gay-rights supporters in the 77-million-member Anglican Communion. "The most devout Christians beat their wives. ... Many of our bishops come from places where it is culturally accepted to beat your wife. In that regard, it makes conversation quite difficult."

The key, she added, is that, "Violence against women, and violence against children for that matter, is violence against the defenseless. With women, it goes hand-in-hand with misogyny."

The New York bishop's accusations rocked the conference, which was already tense due to the absence of about 280 conservative bishops -- many from Nigeria and Uganda -- who declined to attend due to the presence of U.S. leaders who backed the 2003 consecration of the openly gay and noncelibate Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Only 617 Anglican bishops pre-registered and some of those failed to attend, according to a report in The Living Church magazine. Thus, nearly a quarter of the bishops in attendance came from the small, but wealthy, U.S. Episcopal Church.

The most damaging part of Roskam's pronouncement was her tone of moral and cultural superiority, noted commentator Riazat Butt. It was easy for bishops from the Global South to read between the lines and find painful traces of colonialism.

"What bishops should be ... concerned about is her insinuation that a non-white culture leads to domestic violence and that white, western culture is too civilized and too advanced to allow such atrocities to occur," argued Butt, in The Guardian. "Roskam fails to recognize that domestic violence affects people regardless of their class, ethnicity, religion, gender or geography."

The whole episode brought back memories of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, when a rising tide of African and Asian votes helped produce a pivotal resolution -- the vote was 526 in favor, with 70 opposed and 45 abstentions -- stating that sex outside of marriage, including gay sex, is "incompatible with scripture."

The Anglican primate of Scotland said that particular resolution left him feeling "lynched" and was the result of Third World bishops trying to "Islamify Christianity, making it more severe, Protestant and legalistic." One outspoken American bishop complained that many Africans have "moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity."

Now, a decade later, a female bishop from a liberal diocese in America provided new evidence that these kinds of cultural stereotypes are hard to bury.

This kind of guilt-by-association game is not going to ease tensions in the Anglican Communion, noted Archbishop of York John Sentamu.

"I have never beaten my wife, although I can't talk about other people," Sentamu told the London Times. "There is a danger of stereotyping people because of the culture they come from and assuming they must surely be doing it. ... I hope Bishop Catherine has got figures and numbers and people. Because if not, she is in danger of causing an unnecessary rumpus."

Blasphemy in the U.K.

The last successful prosecution under Britain?s blasphemy law was in 1977, when the publisher of the Gay News was fined for printing a love poem from a Roman centurion to Jesus.

In the most recent clash the nation's high court waved off an attempt by evangelicals to attack "Jerry Springer -- The Opera."

To no one's surprise, a coalition of powerful Brits has issued yet another call to kill the blasphemy law. It's a sign of the times.

"The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities," said a statement backed by activists ranging from the creator of the BBC comedy "The Office" to the retired Archbishop of Canterbury. "Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the 'protection' of such a law. Far from protecting public order ... it actually damages social cohesion."

The conviction behind blasphemy laws is that cultures need some kind of religious order to maintain social cohesion, said Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, a key voice in Britain's ongoing debates about faith and culture.

Defenders of Britain's law would insist, he noted, that "it provides some sort of basis to the British constitution, which is, of course, the queen and parliament, under God. So if you protect the queen and protect the parliament, then you also need to protect ... the honor of God."

But the question now is whether Britain can find a common set of values or laws, said Nazir-Ali, in a dialogue with journalists from around the world.

The timing of that 2006 seminar -- organized by my Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life colleagues -- was crucial. Blasphemy was in the news because of Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. Then there would be more tension when Sudanese officials arrested a teacher for allowing her young class to name its teddy bear "Muhammad."

Nazir-Ali recently made headlines of his own when he claimed that radical forms of Islam have turned parts of England into "no-go zones" in which it is dangerous for non-Muslims to live, work and minister. The nation, he lamented, is breaking into "self-contained," segregated communities in which people live "parallel lives." The bishop and his family are living under police protection after receiving death threats.

"Converts to Christian faith also find it difficult or impossible to live in certain areas," noted Nazir-Ali, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots. "It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished."

Soon after this controversy, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams threw more fuel on the multicultural fire by saying that it "seems inevitable" that elements of Muslim Sharia law will be included in the British legal system.

In a complicated lecture, Williams said it might be possible to develop a "scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters." Sharia courts might be involved in some "aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorized structures of mediation and conflict resolution."

News reports about the archbishop's views created a firestorm. Critics stopped just short of accusing Williams of committing a secular brand of blasphemy, if that is possible in modern Britain.

As the headlines raged on, Nazir-Ali stressed that all of these conflicts point to one reality.

Sooner or later, he said, British leaders will have to decide whether to affirm or deny centuries of English law that is "rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition." The various schools of Islamic law that exist today, he stressed, bring with them their own traditions and assumptions and compromise will be next to impossible.

"The Sharia is not a generalized collection of dispositions. It is articulated in highly concrete codes," he wrote, at his diocesan website. "It would have to be one or the other, or all, of these which would have to be recognized. All of these schools would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions of divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence.

"This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy."

God words vs. actions

When it comes to religion, modern Americans think religious beliefs are good, but they tend to worry about beliefs that affect other people.

As a rule, religious words are safer than religious actions.

Consider these numbers from a new Ellison Research study that shows surprising support -- on the left and right, among believers and skeptics -- for freedom of expression when it comes to words and symbols.

An overwhelming 90 percent of adults agreed that faith groups should be allowed to rent public property, such as a school gyms, if laws gave non-religious groups the same right. Asked about allowing a moment of silence in public schools, 89 percent said that was fine. Another 88 percent said teachers should have the right to wear jewelry, such as a cross or a Star of David, in public-school classes.

"There is a lot of unity out there about these kinds of issues," said Ron Sellers, president of the research firm in Phoenix. "But the specifics do matter. Wearing a cross on your lapel is not the same thing as showing up a school wearing a t-shirt with a big cross on it and the words, 'Believe in Jesus or you're going to hell.'

"There's no way to say that approving one thing is the same as approving another, even though the same principle is at stake."

The key is that religion is bad if it makes large numbers of people uncomfortable.

For example, 83 percent of the survey participants said it should be legal to put nativity scenes on public property, such as city hall lawns, and 79 percent supported the posting of the Ten Commandments in court buildings. But that number fell to 60 percent when they were asked about Muslim displays on public property during Ramadan.

This study asked another crucial question linked to a religious liberty issue that is affecting a wide variety of faith groups, especially in higher education.

The researchers asked if respondents agreed that it "should be legal for a religious club in a high school or university to determine for itself who can be in their membership, even if certain types of people are excluded." The result was a stark divide, with only 52 percent agreeing that religious groups should be able to enforce their own doctrines among their own members.

"People might respond differently if you asked the same question, but were more specific," said Sellers. "I think most Americans believe that a Jewish student union should have the right to say, 'No, you're Muslim. You cannot join our group.' But what if it's a conservative Christian group that says, 'No, you cannot join our group because you're gay'? American aren't sure what they think about that, right now."

The trend is clear. Vague talk is safer than clear action. Personal beliefs are good, but not if these doctrines lead to actions that indicate that some beliefs are right and others wrong.

Seeking is good, but finding is bad.

Judging is even worse.

For example, a new survey by the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Research team found that 72 percent of "unchurched" Americans who rarely if ever attend worship services believe that "God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists." However, 61 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the God of the Bible is "no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc."

The researchers found that 78 percent of the respondents claimed that they would be "willing to listen" if a Christian wanted to share talk about their beliefs. Then again, 44 percent agreed that "Christians get on my nerves."

"There is a sense in our culture that is acceptable to believe in anything spiritual, as long as it makes you a better person and helps you find peace," said Ed Stetzer, leader of the LifeWay Research team. "One's faith only becomes a problem when that belief actually makes claims that contradicts the faith of others."

In an age of "I'm OK, You're OK" spirituality, he added, "American spirituality has glorified 'searching' for spiritual meaning, but de-emphasized 'finding.' In other words, it is good to be looking for spirituality, but it is intolerant to actually believe you have found a right faith. ... Intolerance is defined to mean actually believing that your faith is the correct one."