Anglicans find it's Africa vs. West on homosexuality

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On a hot Sunday morning, in a windowless chapel hidden in a grove of banana trees, gather a handful of Christians who are not supposed to exist.

As other devout Africans, they dress smartly, share Bibles, and kneel on the dirt floor to pray. But they are admittedly gay, making them criminals to their government and sinners to their church. Like most of the developing world's vast Anglican Communion, the Church of Uganda considers homosexuality explicitly incompatible with Christianity.

But Erich Kasirye, a young priest, and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a 71-year-old father of seven and pillar of the local Anglican community, disagreed. So three years ago, they set up a tiny congregation a few miles west of Kampala to welcome the pariahs.

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Soon after, the Rev. Mr. Kasirye was fired from his job as youth secretary at a local diocese. Bishop Senyonjo was threatened with arrest. The archbishop of Uganda has suggested that he be defrocked.

The furor exposes a cultural and ideological split between the Anglican faithful in developed countries who are increasingly liberal on the issue of homosexuality, and their more numerous and conservative counterparts in the developing world. The rift is sure to be at the center of next week's special meeting called by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"When people in America and England say [homosexuality] is a way of life, we say no, it's abnormal," says Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo, the Ugandan archbishop. He sees the group as a ploy to wring money from gay-rights organizations in the US.

Africa is now home to more than half the world's Anglicans. Uganda, a country about the size of Oregon, has 8 million believers. Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola heads the largest Anglican province in the world with some 17 million parishioners. By contrast, the Episcopal Church, the US branch of the Anglican Communion, which has lost half its membership in recent decades, has just over 2 million members.

As in much of Africa, in Uganda homosexuality remains illegal and taboo. In 1999, public outcry over a rumor that a gay couple had been allowed to marry prompted President Yoweri Museveni to order police to arrest homosexuals. Several local activists were beaten and tortured, according to Amnesty International.

Inspired by what they saw as a need among an oppressed minority in their church, Mr. Kasirye, with Senyonjo's help, formed a support group for gay Ugandan Anglicans. It welcomed members who had been thrown out of their churches, schools, or even homes because of their sexuality.

The group, which calls itself Integrity Uganda after a similar American organization, generated days of sensational headlines in the local press. The group receives support from its US counterpart, fueling accusations that Americans are employing Kasirye and Senyonjo to promote homosexuality here.

Senyonjo, a short, stout man with a cheerful demeanor, has an office in a small Kampala storefront modestly decorated with the customary lone framed portrait of the president. Forbidden from officiating at routine church functions, he now devotes his time to running a volunteer counseling service for "youths, singles, marrieds, and marriage matching," according to a sign outside the door.

Senyonjo says young Ugandans often come to him lonely and scared in a culture in which sex is not traditionally discussed. On such matters, he disagrees with his church's literal reading of the Bible.

"As Christians, we are supposed to cater for people who are different - that they should not be neglected," he says. "These people are real. You can't just convert them to something they are not."

Nor is Senyonjo completely alone in his views. Earlier this month, one of the continent's senior churchmen, Winston Njongonkulu Ndungane, the archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, criticized his colleagues for focusing their attention on the issue at a cost of neglecting more dire problems facing Africa, such as war and AIDS. "We are not defined by our sexuality," he said.

The rift has caused so much turmoil in the church that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has called a meeting with other Anglican leaders this month in London to discuss it. African church leaders met last month in Nairobi, Kenya, to formulate a unified stance. There is talk of trying to convince Archbishop Williams to allow a separate, conservative Anglican province in North America, which would compete with more liberal Episcopal Church.

After the Episcopal Church confirmed Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop in August, some US church members also threatened to break from their denomination. Church conservatives in the US will meet in Dallas this week to discuss what's next. Over the weekend, Williams met with the pope, who expressed concern over the confirmation decision, saying that divisions over homosexuality threaten to damage Catholic-Anglican relations.

African church leaders have voiced support for the idea of a separate American church. Nkoyoyo, for one, says African Anglicans who go the US often feel more comfortable worshipping with Pentecostals and Baptists, whose evangelical brand of Christianity feels closer to their own faith.

African archbishops also worry about losing converts to the burgeoning evangelical movement, as well as Islam, which has long made the case that the Christian West is decadent and sexually irresponsible. "If the Anglican Communion accepted gay bishops or approved gay unions, that would offer an enormous propaganda victory for Muslims," says Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University.

The Anglican Church has a strong tradition of not meddling in one another's provinces or diocese. But Mr. Jenkins and others agree that views on this issue are likely to harden rather than soften as the West is forced to reckon with the increasingly influential developing-world church.

"Sexuality issues have come to be a symbolic means of declaring the independence of rising African churches against Western cultural and religious imperialism," he says.

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