Will Vatican lure Africa's Anglican anti-gay bishops to Catholic church?

Despite fierce opposition to homosexuality, African bishops say the Vatican's effort to bring more Anglicans to the Catholic church will falter, largely because of the autonomy that they enjoy.

By , Staff writer

Since the Vatican launched its bold bid Tuesday to make it easier for Anglicans to join the Roman Catholic Church, the question on everyone's mind has been: How many will convert?

Will the much ballyhooed Anglican divide over the Church's moves to accept openly gay and female clerics now cause hundreds of thousands of conservative Anglicans – mostly in Africa and parts of the US – to flock to Catholicism?

Early indications from African bishops are that most Anglicans, despite their fierce opposition to homosexuality, will be saying "thanks but no thanks" to Rome's new offer, largely because of the autonomy that they enjoy within the Anglican church.

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"I don't think that priests in Uganda are going to leave and join the Roman Catholic church," says Bishop Stanley Ntagali, head of an Anglican diocese in the east African country of Uganda. "Uganda is [already] a separate region from the Church in Canterbury. They are able to do things their way, and we have to do things our way."

Homosexuality: A non-starter in the African church

"Homosexuality is a big issue in Africa," says Bishop Ntagali. "The Bible says that only men of good standing, following the word of Christ can be leaders of the Church. We disagree with our counterparts in England and America, who ordain homosexuals as priests. But we have to interpret the Bible on our own context, and the English must interpret the Bible in their context."

Ntagali says he has had hard feelings toward leaders of his own denomination since 2003, when the Church of England formally ordained the first openly gay Anglican bishop, Gene Robinson.

The move prompted a number of conservative Anglicans to leave the church and embrace Roman Catholicism, and also led some of North America's more conservative churches to form their own separate region under the church.

Nowhere is this issue more intense than in Africa, where many see homosexuality as an affront to the community as a whole. In South Africa, for instance, it is not uncommon for women thought to be lesbians to be gang-raped in the belief that they will be "cured" of homosexuality. In Uganda, where homosexuality is already illegal, a parliamentarian this week put forward a bill that would make "aggravated" homosexuality – gay sex with disabled people, minors, or when the accused is HIV-positive – punishable by death.

Why African bishops oppose gay clerics

Most church leaders repudiate hatred or cruelty toward homosexuals. But while they say that gay Africans deserve God's love as much as any one else, they draw the line at allowing gay people to become priests.

"This is a problem that we have been fighting, even within the Anglican church itself," says Bishop Julius Kalu, a conservative Anglican church leader in Mombasa, Kenya. "We say that homosexuality is unacceptable, and the ordination of homosexuals as priests is against Biblical beliefs. But it is a personal problem, a vice. As a church we have a duty to reach out to those whose lifestyle is homosexual, but at the same time, we feel it is a vice that the church needs to address."

Despite frustration over the Anglican church's move to allow gay priests, Bishop Kalu agrees with Ntagali that few Anglicans will now choose to become Catholic over the issue.

Autonomy to deviate from Canterbury

Bishops Ntagali and Kalu say that local church leaders need to reserve the right to interpret the Bible in a local context, because social practices that might be acceptable in a European or American parish may not be acceptable in an African parish.

"The Bible says that a husband must have one wife," says Bishop Ntagali. "It does not say that a husband must have one man." Homosexuals, he adds, "are all capable, all eligible of God's saving grace, but we only disagree that they cannot be church leaders."

The fact that they are allowed to disagree with Canterbury, he says, is why there will be little demand to convert to Catholicism.

Not all African clerics are against gays

Defining just what is "African" about local values in Africa – a continent with 53 countries, hundreds of languages, and thousands of tribes and clans – is not always easy.

The Rev. Cynthia Botha, an Anglican priest at the St. Francis Anglican Church in the Parkview suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, says that her parish has always been "very liberal and open" with a church-based outreach group for Anglicans who are gay and lesbian.

"We do have members who are conservative, but I think we need to have a dialog, to listen, we need to find ways to work together," says Rev. Botha. "The gospel tells us that Jesus was open, he was talking to people no matter who they were. We've got to be as open as he was."

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The divide within the Anglican church

Read how one Anglican Archbishop from Nigeria has found common ground in Virginia over the issue of gay priests.

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