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."

Divided by the Creeds?

The words are ancient, yet affirmed by all who join the Episcopal Church.

The bishop asks them: "Do you believe in God the Father?" New members reply: "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth."

The bishop asks: "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?" They reply: "I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary."

There are more doctrinal questions where those came from. This covenant is based on the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.), which is affirmed at Anglican altars everywhere.

This is good, according to one network of progressive Episcopalians, because the way to avoid a global Anglican schism will be to focus on creeds, rather than trying to agree on what the Bible teaches about sex.

The bottom line, argues the Claiming the Blessing coalition, is that "there is no universal 'plain truth of Scripture' in our tradition, save that interpreted for us by the universal creeds. To claim differently is ... to propose a change in the fundamental nature of Anglicanism."

But what if postmodern believers can't agree on what the ancient creeds teach?

The Claiming the Blessing document is backed by groups such as the Episcopal Women's Caucus and Integrity, the caucus for gay, lesbian and bisexual Episcopalians. It was released after the election of a noncelibate homosexual as bishop of New Hampshire.

While Bishop V. Gene Robinson has continued to dominate news reports, many Anglicans are trying to move on and debate more fundamental issues, said the Rev. Susan Russell, director of Claiming the Blessing and president of Integrity.

"Believe me, I would much rather be having deep conversations about peoples' theological orientations than their sexual orientations," she said. "But anything that is about sex is, well, sexy and that's going to get attention. ... Those issues are so polarizing. What we need to find is some unity."

The Claiming the Blessing document is crucial precisely for this reason, said journalist Douglas LeBlanc, writing in the Episcopal Life newspaper. It has candidly underlined the "clash of worldviews that is ultimately at the foundation of our church's arguments about sex. To the letter's question about whether the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds are our common confession, I must answer: I sure hope so."

But creeds only provide unity if people agree on what the words mean. LeBlanc asked, for example, if Claiming the Blessing's leaders believe the creeds are literally "statements of theological reality?

2003 -- Divided by the Sacraments

The atmosphere could not have been tenser as the world's Anglican archbishops gathered in the privacy of Lambeth Palace in London. The world was watching. Conservative Anglicans -- most from Third World altars -- were furious that the U.S. Episcopal Church and its allies were ignoring global calls not to enthrone a noncelibate gay bishop in New Hampshire.

No doubt about it, the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson grabbed headlines and easily won the Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine its top 10 events of 2003. More than 80 percent of the religion-beat specialists named Robinson as Religion Newsmaker of the Year, beating out Pope John Paul II and deposed Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.

But there was much more to this story than the election of one bishop in a tiny Episcopal diocese and the development of same-sex union rites for Anglican altars in North America. After all, there are 2 million Episcopalians. There are between 40 and 50 million Anglicans in Africa, alone.

Robinson's consecration raised a question that could no longer be avoided: How can the Anglican Communion remain intact when it is divided by sacraments, rather than united by them?

Consider a symbolic moment in the Lambeth Palace summit, when traditionalists learned that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams would open that October meeting with the Holy Eucharist. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria quickly informed Williams that several primates could not take part, since they no longer considered themselves in Communion with U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.

"They did this privately, as a courtesy, because they didn't want to create a scene," said an American priest active in debriefing sessions with the archbishops.

Williams was horrified, his face flushed. The archbishop of Canterbury pleaded with Akinola and members of the Third World coalition to receive Communion.

"Rowan asked them to receive since they remained in Communion with him," said another activist close to the African archbishops. "They did so. If they had not had the discussion about not receiving, they would not have been able to produce the tough statement that came out of the meeting. "If they had not received, the meeting would have been over."

Williams drew a sacramental line at the altar and demanded that the Third World archbishops cross it. But will they continue to do so? For how long?

Anglicans are not alone in wrestling with these moral, doctrinal and sacramental questions. Just ask the Presbyterians, Lutherans and United Methodists.

Their answers will affect everything from the number of bodies in pews, to the number of dollars in offering plates, to the number of lawyers on denominational payrolls.

Here are the rest of the top 10 stories in the RNA poll:

(2) The war in Iraq divided some religious communities, with the National Council of Churches and other mainline churches opposed while most evangelical Protestants supported the White House. Some relief efforts also caused controversy.

(3) Clashing definitions of "marriage" continued to cause controversy as the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned a gay-marriage ban. Meanwhile conservatives debated how to word a proposed constitutional amendment on marriage. A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court ended a Texas ban against homosexual sodomy.

(4) Amid a flurry of protest and litigation, a Ten Commandments monument was removed from Alabama's Judicial Building. Justice Moore was removed from office.

(5) The Roman Catholic Church earned both praise and scorn as it tried to implement plans to combat priestly sex abuse. Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley of Palm Beach succeeded Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston and earned high marks. Convicted sex-abuser John Geoghan was killed in prison.

(6) The pope celebrated the 25th anniversary of his election, while growing concerns about his health fueled renewed speculation about his eventual successor.

(7) A tough economy and, in many cases, strife in pews caused red ink and budget cuts in many denominations.

(8) After intense debate, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) retained its "fidelity and chastity" standards for clergy sexual behavior.

(9) The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a California case challenging the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

(10) The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod overturned the suspension of New York President David Benke for participation in an interfaith service after Sept.11. Further debate on interfaith worship is expected in 2004.

Episcopal actions, orthodox reactions

Few would fault the clarity of the Orthodox response to the September marriage of Denis Gogolyev and Mikhail Morozev in the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God Chapel in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

The bishops defrocked the priest, bulldozed the church and burned the wreckage.

"Father Vladimir Enert, who married the gay couple, committed a sin in doing so," a church spokesman told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. "He desecrated the place. We therefore needed to destroy the chapel."

They call it the Orthodox Church for a reason. This is why ecclesiastical politicos gasped when they read that an Orthodox bishop attended rites consecrating Bishop V. Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church's first noncelibate, openly gay bishop.

This was an historic occasion and the whole ecumenical world was watching.

"Frankly, I have been surprised that so many people are upset about this," said Bishop Paul Peter Jesep of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church-Sobornopravna. "I believe Bishop Robinson was duly and prayerfully elected and, besides, I think it's inappropriate for one church to try and tell another how to fulfill its mission."

The 39-year-old bishop -- a former lawyer, journalist, U.S. Senate aide and founder of ModerateRepublican.net -- stressed that acted on his own and that his church has not addressed Robinson's consecration.

Orthodox leaders also noted that Jesep serves a tiny splinter church that plays no role in the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. There are dozens of non-canonical "Orthodox" flocks, including at least 16 other Ukrainian bodies.

Meanwhile, the American bishops are standing their ground. The conference proclaimed: "The Orthodox Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, firmly grounded in Holy Scripture, 2000 years of church tradition, and canon law, holds that marriage consists in the conjugal union of a man and a woman. ... Neither Scripture nor Holy Tradition blesses or sanctions such a union between persons of the same sex."

Greek Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh was blunter: "Do these Anglican thinkers realize that an evil spirit may be behind all these things? What the Orthodox denounce in these false practices and teachings is that they are the practices and teachings which oppose the Will of God as taught by the Bible, thus, being the result of our fallen, sinful, human 'experience!' "

Nevertheless, the New Hampshire rites drew many mainline clerics. The ecumenical procession included representatives of the American Baptists, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Unitarian-Universalists, United Methodists and others.

Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl of Sweden took part and it was announced that he also represented the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said Father Robert Stiefel of the diocesan transition team. This was symbolic, because of an ELCA and Episcopal accord to share sacraments and clergy.

Apparently no Catholic clergy took part, although Jesep said several Catholic lay leaders joined the procession. Catholic bishops have often been observers at Anglican consecrations -- but not this time.

Pope John Paul II recently warned Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that the ties that bind them are at the breaking point. "New and serious" obstacles block the path to unity.

"These difficulties are not all of a merely disciplinary nature," said the papal text. "Some extend to essential matters of faith and morals. ... Faced with the increasing secularism of today's world, the church must ensure that the deposit of faith is proclaimed in its integrity and preserved from erroneous and misguided interpretations."

No additional commentary was needed, especially in a time when the powerful Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is showing a willingness to build new bridges to Anglican traditionalists in America and England. Might there even be a new "Anglican rite" in communion with Rome?

Whatever happens will happen, said Jesep. While the New Hampshire consecration may rattle other altars and pews, critics of Robinson's ministry must realize that the U.S. Episcopal Church has made its choice and acted on it.

"The larger issue is not who participated and who did not participate," he said. "The real issue is that there is a gay bishop -- period. The issue now is how the church reacts to this as a Christian family.