Lambeth: Doctrine and diversity

CANTERBURY - As television crews zoomed in, a Nigerian bishop and a British gay-rights activist demonstrated why it's so hard to operate a totally inclusive church.

Facing demonstrators at the 13th global Lambeth Conference, Anglican Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma urgently offered prayers of healing for Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. Kirker insisted he did not need to repent, since God had made him gay. In a gesture as old as the apostles, the Nigerian tried to place a hand on Kirker's head to pray for him. The gay-rights leader caught the bishop's hand and held it aloft, their black and white fingers intertwined in a grip that was not a symbol of unity.

"Jesus will deliver you!" shouted the bishop.

Tensions were high last week, as Anglican bishops debated and then passed a resolution saying that sex outside of marriage, including gay sex, is "incompatible with scripture" and urging a ban on same-sex unions and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals.

There were two ways to look at this once-a-decade gathering that brought nearly 750 bishops to Canterbury, Anglicanism's symbolic heart. Leaders of a powerful new conservative coalition, mostly Africans, Asians and a few bishops from England and America, were convinced they had prevented a global schism. Leaders of the Anglican establishment were stunned, yet left comforted by the knowledge that Lambeth votes are advisory. The vote on the pivotal resolution on marriage and sex was 526 in favor, with 70 opposed and 45 abstentions.

Tensions between the First World churches and those in the rapidly growing Two-Thirds World -- especially between Americans and Africans -- touched almost every event here.

The Americans portrayed themselves as leaders of a living church, one evolving to minister to the modern world. The Africans, they whispered, represent the past -- a church chained to traditional views of creeds and scriptures. The Africans said it is their church that is alive, bringing waves of believers into jam-packed sanctuaries. Trendy Americans, they suggested, are married to the present.

In the final Eucharist, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey stated the obvious.

"We know what it is to move from a diversity which can be delighted in and celebrated, so something quite different: a differing from each other which gathers heat and turns into a very painful dispute," said Carey, an evangelical who backed traditional teachings on sex. "It is so easy to demonize one another when that happens and to part company in the family."

Africans and Asians stressed that they welcome diversity, especially in culture, worship and church leadership. But they clearly consider diversity a bad word, when applied to basic doctrinal issues - such as biblical authority, the resurrection or defining the Sacrament of Marriage.

It is their highly traditional churches that gaining power, while the First World's numbers are stagnant or declining. At this point, the Church of England may have 26 million members, but only a million in pews each week. But England had 100-plus bishops at Lambeth. The Episcopal Church has only 2 million members - but nearly 180 votes. By contrast, Africans have infinitely smaller financial resources and, thus, fewer dioceses and bishops.

But this is changing. First-World progressives showed signs of frustration at Lambeth.

Newark Bishop John Spong, in a taped interview, said many Africans have "moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity," failing even to grasp the "intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein." The Church of England Newspaper put a bold headline on its story: "African Christians? They're just one step up from witchcraft." When asked if Africans might be offended, Spong added: "If they feel patronized that's too bad. I'm not going to cease to be a 20th-Century person for fear of offending somebody in the Third World."

African bishops were stunned. Spong issued a weak apology, while most Americans were silent. Bishop Alexis Bilindabagabo of Rwanda wondered if many Anglican churches still share the same faith, with a common view of tradition and scripture.

"The wider our family becomes, the more you want to have something in common," he said, in one debate. "When you talk about sin in certain places, it has ceased to exist. When you talk about repentance in certain places, it has ceased to exist."