Episcopal Church Dissidents Seek Authority Overseas Amid Rift Over Gays,
Conservatives Go Global; Bishops Made in Africa
By ANDREW HIGGINS
September 20, 2007; Page A1
MBARARA, Uganda -- The Rev. John Guernsey, rector of a church in a middle-class Virginia suburb, stood early this month before thousands of Africans here on a rickety, ribbon-bedecked podium. Clutching a wooden staff in his left hand, he shouted in Runyankole, a local tribal language: "Mukama Asimwe!" -- Praise the Lord!
Mr. Guernsey, 54 years old, had reason to rejoice. A defector from America's Episcopal Church, he had just been made a bishop -- by the Church of Uganda.
"I had no idea that this is what God had in store for me," said the bespectacled Virginia priest after a five-hour consecration ceremony in Mbarara, a Ugandan district best known for its long-horned cattle.
Mr. Guernsey represents a religious byproduct of globalization: A small but growing number of Christians in North America are turning to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere for spiritual direction. Some priests call the phenomenon "theological offshoring." They are looking to Africa and other poor lands not just for inspiration but, in a very literal way, they are moving their theological base offshore.
Three days before Mr. Guernsey's consecration in southwestern Uganda, the Anglican Church in neighboring Kenya minted two other U.S. bishops -- one from Massachusetts, the other from Texas. Rwanda, another of Uganda's neighbors, has said that it will elevate three more Americans to the rank of bishop by January.
None of these new bishops will work in Africa. Their new missions call for them to return home and combat what they see as growing disregard for traditional interpretations of the Bible, especially pertaining to homosexuality. The Episcopal Church, the American branch of a global Anglican movement with more than 80 million members, outraged conservatives in its own ranks and abroad when it appointed a gay Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
The rift will be the focus of a gathering of Episcopal Church bishops in New Orleans that begins today and runs to Sept. 25. The conclave follows a February request by Anglican leaders from around the world that U.S. bishops pledge, before Sept. 30, not to appoint any more gay or lesbian bishops, nor bless same-sex unions.
More than 200 American churches have relocated their spiritual guidance offshore, switching allegiance to more conservative Anglican churches in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Bolivia and Argentina. No longer part of the Episcopal hierarchy, they report to overseas leaders and follow the more orthodox theology espoused by their new foreign base.
Some of these are new churches created by dissident Episcopalians. Others are established parishes that bolted from the Episcopal Church. About 900 more U.S. churches have joined the Anglican Communion Network, an outfit set up in 2004 to mobilize resistance within the Episcopal Church to what some members see as its theological disarray.
"This is a new order," says the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, a former Episcopal Church rector who was made a bishop last year in Nigeria and was in Mbarara for Mr. Guernsey's consecration.
Based in Virginia, Mr. Minns now oversees around 35 U.S. churches that have joined Nigeria's Anglican church. Mr. Minns believes that the ordination of Bishop Guernsey is akin to other changes reshaping the world economy. "Take a look at what is happening in industry" with the outsourcing of American factory and service jobs, he says. "The church is going the same way."
The Episcopal Church, headquartered in New York City, had no official comment about Mr. Guernsey or other offshore bishops. Patrick Getlein, secretary of the Diocese of Virginia says, "John was a fine priest and it is unfortunate that he chose to abandon the Episcopal Church."
Africa's Anglican churches are autonomous units so they have the right to consecrate whom they want. The Episcopal Church has not directly challenged the legitimacy of foreign-appointed bishops but has protested intrusions by outside churches into its own turf. The defectors say they are supported by donations from their U.S. congregations. Mr. Guernsey is entitled to a modest salary from the Church of Uganda, but says he will decline any money.
Anglicanism arose from the 16th-century rift between Henry VIII and the Catholic Church, and today it spans the globe. But it is a far looser federation than the Roman Catholic Church, a highly centralized organization headquartered in Rome. The British-based Archbishop of Canterbury has scant powers to enforce unity among 38 autonomous provinces.
These range from the relatively liberal churches of the rich world -- chiefly the Episcopal Church in the U.S., the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada -- to the often more conservative and far bigger churches of African and other mostly developing-world provinces with more than 50 million worshipers. America's Episcopal Church says it has around 2.4 million members.
Each province, headed by an archbishop or presiding bishop, used to be pretty self-sufficient, consecrating its own set of bishops to oversee theology and the administration of dioceses. But that structure is fracturing as Mr. Guernsey, Mr. Minns and like-minded conservative priests move their spiritual bases offshore.Showing Solidarity
"We are in the middle of a reformation of global proportions," says Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh. He hasn't yet formally broken with the Episcopal Church, but he leads the dissident Anglican Communion Network. Bishop Duncan coordinates closely with church leaders in Uganda and elsewhere on how to restore "Christian orthodoxy." To show solidarity with the offshore movement, he, too, traveled to Mbarara.
Others are not so moved. When St. Margaret's Church, an Episcopal parish near Mr. Guernsey's, voted last year to align with Nigeria, several dozen worshipers quit to form their own loyalist congregation.
"My position was simple: I'm out of here," says Alton Tucker, an African-American physician who joined the loyalists. He says he doesn't think gay bishops are a good idea but opposes any alliance with African churches that "have a lot of prejudices and practices that we as Americans, not just Episcopalians, don't share."
Accusing the Africans of poaching on its territory, the Episcopal Church has launched a raft of lawsuits across the U.S. to get back property occupied by dissident American congregations. The Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, a group that champions gay and lesbian rights in the Episcopal Church, denounces offshore bishops as the "intercontinental ballistic weapons of schism and division."
Episcopalians aren't the only Christians to traverse the globe in search of renewed spiritual vigor. The Roman Catholic Church has also looked to developing nations in the face of rampant European secularism. But clear lines of authority leading to back to the pope in Rome have prevented serious splintering.
More loosely organized Protestant denominations, however, wrestle with serious divisions as vibrant churches in poor countries find common ground with conservative Lutherans, Methodists and other faithful in the West.
Mr. Guernsey is now back at his All Saints' Church in the Virginia suburb of Woodbridge. The Episcopal diocese to which he used to belong now has three resident bishops in its territory. One was named by the Episcopal Church. Then there are the Uganda-ordained Mr. Guernsey, and the Nigeria-appointed Mr. Minns. Each has the accoutrements of a bishop -- a purple shirt, flowing red vestments and a special ring.
Mr. Guernsey says he'll return to Africa periodically for consultations with the Church of Uganda, which has its main offices on a Kampala hilltop near a sign that warns of a wild leopard on the prowl. His main job, aside from his duties at All Saints', is to shepherd the 33 U.S. churches that have declared allegiance to Uganda.
Uganda "is certainly very different" from Woodbridge, says Mr. Guernsey, who first visited Africa as a student. The average family income of around $54,000 a year in Virginia is 154 times that of $350 in Mbarara. But the African country's church is in tune with the Bible-based spirit of his Virginia parish, says Mr. Guernsey. "This is about fundamental issues of scripture that won't go away." Homosexual acts, for instance, are illegal in Uganda, where politicians and priests denounce them as Satanic.
Anglicanism came to Uganda with Church of England missionaries in the 19th-century heyday of the British Empire. Opposition to homosexuality, an issue now convulsing the Anglican church world-wide, played an important role. In 1886, the king of a big local tribe called the Baganda incinerated 26 Christian court pages after they rebuffed his homosexual advances and refused to recant their faith.
In a recent essay titled "What is Anglicanism?" Uganda's archbishop, the Most Rev. Henry Luke Orombi, cited the episode to help explain the vitality of Uganda's Anglican faith. "As the flames engulfed them, these young martyrs sang songs of praise," he wrote. "Christianity began to spread like wildfire."
After Uganda's independence from Britain in 1962, the church served as a rare pillar of stability in a country tormented by coups, war and economic collapse. In 1977, the dictator Idi Amin, a Muslim, had Uganda's Anglican archbishop murdered.
British colonialism also brought Anglicanism to America with the founding, in 1607, of the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia. Close to established power before and after the American Revolution, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism has counted roughly a dozen American presidents among its members, including George Washington and George H.W. Bush.
The Episcopal Church grew increasingly involved in social issues from the 1970s, campaigning against racism and poverty, in line with biblical injunctions to help the poor and weak. It also took up more-controversial causes related to gender and sexual orientation. Some conservatives strongly opposed the ordination of women, which began in 1974.
Far more divisive was the arrival of gay and lesbian clergy. The Episcopal Church ordained its first openly lesbian minister in 1977 and its first gay one in 1989.
Mr. Guernsey, whose wife is an ordained Episcopal minister and remains with the church, says he had no problem with female priests. But he and his allies denounced the ordination of gays as contrary to the Bible. An Old Testament passage orders that "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination." Their more liberal opponents noted that scripture also denounces tattoos, sowing a field with mixed seeds and the eating of pigs, rabbits and various forms of seafood. Interpretation of the Bible, they say, must evolve with time while remaining true to core Christian principles.
In 1990, three of the U.S. priests now leading the campaign for Anglican orthodoxy bonded on a trip to Colorado. The state's Episcopal Church was selecting a new bishop. Candidates for the post included Mr. Guernsey, Mr. Minns, now a Nigeria-appointed bishop, and Mr. Duncan, bishop of Pittsburgh. All got passed over for the bishop's job.
Mr. Duncan, now a leader of the conservative camp, says they talked about the Episcopal Church's direction. The debate over homosexuality, he says they agreed, had raised a central question: "What is our ultimate authority -- scripture or the individual?"
What began as a largely developed-world quarrel began to go global. In 1998, Anglican bishops from around the world gathered in England for the Lambeth Conference, a meeting held once a decade. Pro- and antigay activists lobbied furiously. After much argument, the conference rejected "homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture."
The rift in the U.S. church, however, only grew wider as liberal activists pushed for same-sex unions and a bigger role for gay priests. Chuck Murphy, then an Episcopal priest in South Carolina, decided it was time for drastic action and blazed what has now become a well-trodden trail: He went overseas to be ordained a bishop.'Returning the Favor'
Mr. Murphy says he turned offshore for his bishopric because he feared being sanctioned for his views by the Episcopal Church leadership. "If you slide offshore you are protected. I'm now protected. I can't be touched," he says. Homosexuality "is the flashpoint" but only part of a bigger struggle. "There is a big realignment happening. We sent missionaries to Africa 150 years ago, and now Africa is returning the favor." Today, Mr. Murphy is a U.S.-based bishop in Rwanda's Anglican Church.
Though Mr. Murphy bolted, Mr. Guernsey and many others still balked at his radical strategy. This changed in the summer of 2003, when the church said it planned to name as bishop the Rev. Gene Robinson, a New Hampshire priest and divorced father of two living with a gay partner.
More than 2,500 conservative Anglicans gathered in Texas and called on the Episcopal Church to "repent" and abandon its "unbiblical and schismatic actions." Mr. Guernsey spoke at the meeting and explained what he said was a biblical mandate to shift money and energy away from the Episcopal Church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury called an emergency conclave of primates from around the world. Formal confirmation of Mr. Robinson as bishop, the bishops warned, "will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level." The Episcopal Church consecrated Mr. Robinson in November of 2003 despite the protests.
The Church of Uganda and several other African churches responded by breaking off ties with the Episcopal Church and offering shelter to disgruntled U.S. parishes.
The mood turned increasingly toxic. Mr. Duncan, the dissident Pittsburgh bishop, began getting menacing phone calls at his home. On one occasion, he received a package filled with excrement, says his wife. On the other side of the trenches, Mr. Robinson, who wore a bulletproof vest during his 2003 consecration, received death threats.'Offshore Bishops'
In March 2004, Alison Barfoot, a Virginia Episcopalian who now works for the Church of Uganda in Kampala, drafted a private memorandum outlining possible ways to expand the use of what she called "offshore bishops" -- known in church jargon as "alternative Episcopal oversight." She wrote it after consultation with Mr. Guernsey, Mr. Minns and other discontented U.S. clergy. The memo leaked and caused outrage in the loyalist camp.
A few months later, Uganda picked up its first two U.S. parishes, both in California and both bitterly opposed to gay priests. The Episcopal Church sued to get its property back.
Mr. Guernsey says his own church, All Saints', voted 402-6 to align with Uganda late last year and avoided a legal battle over property by negotiating a settlement with the Virginia diocese. Late last year, Mr. Duncan, Pittsburgh's dissident conservative bishop, wrote to Ugandan Archbishop Orombi and proposed that he promote Mr. Guernsey to bishop. Mr. Orombi, who says he has no designs on American property, embraced the idea so as to provide "Ugandan" churches in the U.S. with an American-based overseer.
A few weeks before this month's ceremony in Mbarara, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, Peter James Lee, booted Mr. Guernsey and 21 other dissident Virginia preachers from the Episcopal priesthood.
As he stood amid family members, supporters from Virginia and throngs of African faithful, Mr. Guernsey pledged allegiance to the Church of Uganda and vowed to "banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's word."
A thin layer of clouds shielded the gathering from a scorching equatorial sun. This, declared Archbishop Orombi, showed the occasion was God's work. "This weather is not normal," he told the crowd. "God has done a good thing."
Write to Andrew Higgins at firstname.lastname@example.org