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."