African cleric breaks ranks on gay issue

One of Africa's most senior churchmen broke ranks with fellow African and developing world archbishops yesterday to denounce their arrogance and intolerance over homosexuality, the issue that threatens to split the worldwide Anglican communion.

In an interview with the Guardian, the Most Reverend Winston Njongonkulu Ndungane, Archbishop of Cape Town and Primate of Southern Africa, implicitly criticised his colleagues for undermining the 70 million strong communion with their denunciations of the election in the US of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, and the earlier aborted appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. His remarks appeared directly aimed at Peter Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria, head of the largest single church in the Anglican world, who has claimed that homosexuals are lower than beasts and who has called for the American and Canadian Episcopal churches to be thrown out of the communion.

Those views have been backed by other bishops and archbishops, mainly from South America, the West Indies, other parts of Africa, the Far East and Australia. They are also supported by many British evangelicals.

Both Archbishop Ndungane and Archbishop Akinola are among the 38 primates summoned to Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, next month to discuss the threats of schism caused by the gay issue. Opponents are claiming more than half of the archbishops will take a hard line on the issue and may attempt to force the US church out of the communion.

But Archbishop Ndungane said: "There is an attempt to divert us from the major life and death issues in the world. There is a woman waiting to be stoned to death for adultery in Nigeria and yet we are not hearing any fuss from the leadership of the church there about that.

"People are going hungry across the world, the Israelis are building a fence around the Palestinians, HIV/Aids is a global emergency... these are major, urgent, issues which should be a priority for the Church and we must not lose our focus on that."

The Archbishop succeeded Desmond Tutu eight years ago as leader of two million worshippers in the oldest province in Africa, covering eight countries up to Zimbabwe.

He insisted that the integrity of the US church's decision at its general convention last month to confirm the election of Canon Robinson as diocesan bishop of New Hampshire should be respected. Some archbishops are demanding that the appointment must be rescinded, although there is no mechanism for that.

Archbishop Ndungane said: "The Episcopal church is an autonomous province with its own procedures and processes which determine its own decisions. It is full of good people and they have followed one of the most transparent and democratic processes of decision-making in the whole Anglican communion.

"It is very arrogant to assume that the people in America do not know what they are doing. We have got to respect their decision.

"We have also got to respect the integrity of our provinces as autonomous entities whether we agree with them or not, or whether they make us uncomfortable or not. The Archbishop of Canterbury is first-among-equals but he has no jurisdiction or authority to intervene." On homosexuality, the archbishop speaks with particular force since he chaired a committee of 60 bishops at the last Lambeth conference five years ago that looked into the issue of human sexuality. The committee was overruled at the conference by other hardline bishops.

He said: "I am very concerned about this current debate because it seems to me that some kind of hypocrisy is going on in the Church. Gene Robinson and Jeffrey John have been open and honest about their private lives.

"It is no secret that there are gay clergy and there are gay bishops, and the institutional church seems to be turning a blind eye when we should be encouraging honesty. If Gene Robinson had kept quiet there would have been no issue.

"We in Africa need to learn more about our sexuality and I intend inviting my fellow brothers and sister to a conference at a university in Natal next year. I know people who are gay and lesbian who are African. The issue of orientation knows no culture and my fellow bishops are in denial, they have an ostrich mentality on this subject.

"Our church must learn how to live together as a diverse community.

"That's what should be on the agenda, not seeking to cast stones or talking about schisms."