Anglicans Tackle Threat of Schism Over Gay Clergy

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Members of the clergy enter York Minster before a service to consecrate the Reverend Libby Lane as the first female bishop in the Church of England, in York, England, on January 26. Reuters

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

Leaders of the worldwide Anglican church are meeting at Canterbury Cathedral this week, with some observers predicting an open schism over homosexuality.

There is fear that archbishops from six African countries—Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—may walk out if the archbishop of Canterbury, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, doesn't sanction the U.S. Episcopal Church for consecrating gay bishops.

Since about 60 percent of the world's Anglicans are in Africa, that would be a major break.

I am neither an Anglican nor a theologian, but I did reflect on the nonreligious values that shape some of these disputes in The Guardian a few years ago. The Anglican archbishop of South Africa, Njongonkulu Ndungane, says his church should abandon its "practices of discrimination" and accept gay Episcopal bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. That makes him unusual in Africa, where other Anglican bishops have strongly objected to the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

For instance, Archbishop Peter Akinola, the Nigerian primate, condemned the consecration of Robinson as bishop, calling it a "satanic attack on the church of God." According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "He even issued a statement on behalf of the 'Primates of the Global South'—a group of 20 Anglican primates from Africa, the West Indies, South America, India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia—deploring the action and, along with Uganda and Kenya, formally severed relations with Robinson's New Hampshire diocese."

So what makes Ndungane different? He's the successor to Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, one might recall. And they both grew up in South Africa, where enlightenment values always had a foothold, even during the era of apartheid. Ndungane studied at the liberal, English-speaking University of Cape Town, where Senator Robert F. Kennedy gave a famous speech in 1966.

Ndungane didn't hear that speech, alas, because he was then imprisoned on Robben Island. But after he was released he decided to enter the church and took two degrees at King's College London. The arguments of the struggle against apartheid came from Western liberalism: the dignity of the individual, equal and inalienable rights, political liberty, moral autonomy, the rule of law and the pursuit of happiness.

So it's no surprise that a man steeped in that struggle and educated in the historic home of those ideas would see how they apply in a new struggle: the struggle of gay people for equal rights, dignity and the pursuit of happiness as they choose.

The South African Anglicans remain in favor of gay marriage. And, of course, such church schisms are not new. The Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches in the United States split over slavery. The Methodists and Presbyterians reunited a century later, but the Baptists remain separate.

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, author of The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom and editor of The Libertarian Reader.