Father Thomas Johnston of Arkansas is without a doubt the world's most controversial missionary, at least among prelates who wear purple shirts and Anglican collars.
It isn't his years of overseas work that will have insiders whispering, or cursing, his name during the next three weeks as 800 Anglican bishops gather at Canterbury for their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference. No, Johnston is controversial because he is currently, under church law, a foreign missionary in his own land. He is an American priest who works for an African bishop, leading an American congregation that exists in open defiance of its American bishop.
The story of St. Andrew's Church in Little Rock is extremely complicated -- almost as complicated as the puzzle facing Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and others striving to preserve unity among the world's 70 million Anglicans.
"Times of reformation are always messy and painful," said Johnston. "But some of us have been praying for just such a time -- a time when people will have to take a stand on the substance of their faith. They will have to cling to some things and surrender others. So be it."
It's easy to sense the pain in letters exchanged between Johnston, Arkansas Bishop Larry Maze and Bishop John Rucyahana of the Province of Rwanda. While most of the headlines produced by the 13th Lambeth gathering will center on sex, this Little Rock dispute represents the cutting edge of Anglican conflicts over wider issues -- from biblical authority to the relevance of ancient creeds proclaiming a Trinitarian God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Two years ago, Maze rejected a local evangelical group's appeal to start a new parish. The bishop was convinced that he was dealing with rebels who merely oppose the work of those, such as himself, who are committed to modernizing church teachings on sexuality and marriage. Instead of surrendering, the fledgling congregation sought help from a national and international network of like-minded Anglicans.
Eventually, the mission hired Johnston. Maze and his diocese refused to give the priest permission to serve in Little Rock and quickly began the process of asking his former diocese in South Carolina to recall or discipline him. The Arkansas bishop learned that Johnston had, legally, been transferred to the Diocese of Shyira, Rwanda.
"It seems clear that Mr. Johnston has no intention of moving to Rwanda ... and that action was taken only to remove himself from accountability in the American church," wrote Maze, in an April statement. "What had been a national dispute involving the integrity of diocesan boundaries, is now an issue transplanted to the larger Anglican Communion."
Maze asked Rucyahana to "redeploy" Johnston to "a diocese that might request this presence." The African bishop replied that he remains committed to giving the priest and his flock "spiritual asylum." The bishop is scheduled to visit Little Rock in September.
"The Unity of the Church is centered only in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, who died for our sins, rose from the dead and lives (as we have it in the Christian creeds)," wrote Rucyahana. "So the issue of boundaries and collegiality can not hold when the central Unity in Jesus is damaged." The African bishop isn't alone. Other African and Asian bishops have signaled that if Americans keep making unilateral doctrinal changes that affect Anglicans worldwide, then the Third World may respond with unilateral legal steps that affect Episcopalians in America.
In effect, many Americans argue that Anglicanism must defend ancient traditions about church laws and holy orders, while embracing doctrinal ambiguities. Third World bishops are saying that they will live with ambiguities affecting property laws, pensions and holy orders, in order to defend ancient doctrines. Both sides are clashing with another tradition: that the church must be defined by right doctrine and right orders.
"It's a really sick situation," said Johnston. "Truth is, the sexuality issue is just a symptom of a much greater evil and darkness at the very heart of the Episcopal Church. ... Many of our leaders no longer teach the Nicene faith. They no longer believe in the faith of the ancient church. When that happens -- it's all over. God will not bless that kind of church."