Leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion have given a strong nod to their fast-growing congregation in Africa. Concluding a three-week meeting in Canterbury, known as the Lambeth conference, they have avoided a split over controversial issues in their church and also adopted some highly debated positions, including an apparent endorsement of revolutionary violence.
The role of women in the church and the nature of ecclesiastical authority and leadership were debated but remain unresolved issues.
In a concession to African culture, the bishops voted to loosen the rules on baptism, allowing polygamists to join the church. The church leaders also showed a strong interest in social and political issues such as famine, war, violence against children, and homelessness, which affect about 70 million Anglican followers.
One of the bishops' most controversial resolutions expressed ``understanding'' toward political activists who, ``after exhausting all other ways, choose the way of the armed struggle as the only way to justice.'' The resolution was proposed and supported by a group of African bishops and was passed with the struggle to end South African apartheid in mind.
British and Irish churchmen were upset that the statement could easily be misunderstood as an endorsement of violence in Northern Ireland, and they quickly drafted another resolution which specifically condemned all violence by Irish terrorists.
Irish bishops pointed out that the phrase ``armed struggle'' was used in propaganda by the Irish Republican Army who, they said, were engaged in a ruthless campaign which had little support either north or south of the Irish border.
``It is most regrettable that words used should in any way offer solace to those who have taken to themselves a right to take life at random,'' said the Primate of All Ireland and the Archbishop of Armagh, Robert Eames.
The controversy highlighted the new influence of African bishops, especially Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Churchmen said the resolution illustrated challenges Christians face when trying to apply Christian ethics in complex political and social circumstances.
The new rule on baptizing polygamists was also recognition of the special conditions in Africa, the fastest growing region for Anglicanism. The resolution affirmed monogamy as ``God's plan'' but permitted baptism if a convert with more than one wife promises not to marry again as long as any of the wives at the time of conversion are alive. The rule would give African churches more flexibility in accepting new members and not require a family to break up where the welfare of many children are at stake.
``What we are asking is that such people as those who receive Christ in that kind of condition [as polygamists] should not be forced to separate from their wives because of the social problems it would create,'' Manasses Kuria, the Bishop of Kenya said.
Churchmen were pleased that the meeting confounded predictions of some observers that the Anglican Communion would break up over the ordination of women. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, stressed the need for unity even if this meant postponing difficult decisions. ``The fact that we appear to be divided on some of these issues has in fact had the opposite result internally,'' Ireland's Archbishop Eames said in a BBC radio interview.