Satan's throne in a Church?

The Anglican Communion's civil war has flared up again, with more headlines about sex, sin and schism.

Colorado was the front lines last week, when archbishops from Southeast Asia and Rwanda invaded Episcopal Church territory to lead rites consecrating four additional missionary bishops for America. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey asked if they were aware "that action of this kind takes you perilously close to creating a new group of churches at odds with the See of Canterbury and the rest of the Communion?"

The African, Asian and American bishops behind the Anglican Mission in America think they know what they are doing. The crucial question is: "Why are they doing it?"

To answer that, it may help to flash back nearly a decade to words spoken at a Colorado altar by another Asian bishop. During a 1992 visit, Archbishop Moses Tay of Singapore offered a radical view of the doctrinal divisions within Anglicanism. Tay is a symbolic figure, because he later hosted the January 2000 rites to consecrate the Anglican Mission in America's first two bishops.

Tay is soft-spoken, but not timid. Speaking at Denver's Christ Church, he turned to Revelation, chapter 2, an ominous passage in a mysterious book. In this vision, Jesus is seen reigning in heaven. Christ tells the angel of the Church of Pergamum, ``I know where you are living, where Satan's throne is.''

Is it possible, asked Tay, that Satan had a throne in that church? "Would we be shocked if that is true, that Satan has his throne in some of our churches?''

The Revelation text offered two warning signs of this condition, said Tay. The first was "corrupt teachers" who brought other gods into the church through syncretistic worship. The second was compromise on issues of sexual immorality.

The archbishop didn't have to say much about sex. Clashes over sex outside of marriage -- especially homosexual acts -- had already shaken Episcopalians and other oldline Protestants for a decade. But this sermon came four years before an Episcopal court ruled that the church has no "core doctrine" on sex and marriage. It came eight years before the House of Bishops acknowledged that many believers live in "life-long committed relationships" outside of Holy Matrimony and pledged "prayerful support" and even "pastoral care" for those living in such relationships.

Sex was old news. So Tay spent more time warning that church members would have to worry about their leaders -- literally -- praying to other gods. As shepherd of a small flock in Singapore, he stressed that he knows what it's like to work in a culture packed with competing gods. He wondered aloud if Americans take this issue seriously.

"We have this pressure (to compromise) in our own place, in Singapore, in the Far East," Tay said. "I believe this is ... very prevalent within some quarters of the Anglican Communion. I say this with some shame and sadness, because this is the very thing that the Bible forbids.''

A year later, I witnessed what Tay was describing during a news event in New York City -- the annual "Missa Gaia (Earth Mass)" at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault: "Oba ye Oba yo Yemanja. ... Oby ye Oba yo O Ausar. Oba ye Oba yo O Ra Ausar." This was printed in the bulletin.

As New York Bishop Richard Grein waited at the altar, the musicians sang praises to some of the gods of Africa and Egypt.

Is this kind of syncretistic worship common? Of course not. Is it encouraged by a few academic leaders and trendy liturgists? Apparently so. Have some bishops quietly tolerated the worship of other gods -- by name -- at Episcopal altars? Yes.

Are some Third World Anglicans concerned about this? Yes.

It's tempting just to argue about sex, said Tay. But after his Denver sermon, he asked this tough question: What is the meaning of unity in a communion in which some believers and even bishops may not worship the same God?

This is an explosive question. Sooner or later, the See of Canterbury will need to provide an answer.