Church fears north-south sex rift

Protests from Nigeria help block a gay Church of England cleric from becoming a bishop. Rwandan and Singaporean Anglicans sponsor conservative missionaries in an increasingly liberal United States.

In Washington, an African cardinal tipped as a possible future pope causes an uproar at a Catholic university's graduation ceremony by declaring the modern family is "mocked by homosexuality... and cut in two by divorce."

The sight of Third World clerics increasingly defending traditional values against spreading liberal views on sex in the West raises the question whether the world's leading Christian churches face a case of "the empire strikes back."

Philip Jenkins, an historian of religion, thinks so and says these north-south splits could be "the shape of things to come."

The appointment of an openly gay bishop is unthinkable in the Roman Catholic Church, but it too has a clear north-south rift on other issues dominating modern life in developed world.

"There's a lot more interest in ordaining women in the United States and Europe than there is in the Third World," said Father Thomas Reese, editor of the U.S. Jesuit weekly America.

These two churches, whose global structures make them most sensitive to north-south rifts, account for two-thirds of the world's two billion Christians. Catholics make up 60 percent of that total and Anglicans six percent, Jenkins said.


Church of England clergyman Jeffrey John defused the crisis in the Anglican Communion on Sunday when he turned down his appointment as an auxiliary bishop in the Oxford diocese.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans, supports gay clerics, but the 17 million-strong Church of Nigeria -- the world's largest Anglican congregation -- would have none of it.

"We cannot continue to be in communion with people who have taken a step outside the biblical boundaries," said Archbishop Peter Jasper Akinola in a threat to break away.

Williams, also opposed by evangelicals in Britain and Australia, acknowledged the role Nigeria played by saying: "The estrangement of churches in developing countries from their cherished ties with Britain is in no one's interests."

But the rift will hardly go away and is hardly limited to England. It surfaced in May in Canada, when a diocese in British Columbia allowed blessings for same-sex couples.

In June, Episcopalians (U.S. Anglicans) in New Hampshire elected their church's first openly gay bishop.

Back in 2000, conservative bishops in Rwanda and Singapore launched the Anglican Mission in America (AMIA) by consecrating disillusioned Episcopal clerics as "missionary bishops" to offer a conservative alternative to the increasingly liberal church.

"I don't think it will become a full-scale schismatic rival to the Episcopal Church, but it's active and quite important," said Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University historian who analysed the rift in his book The Next Christendom last year.


Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican official often tipped as a possible future pope, illustrated the north-south rift on May 17 when he repeated traditional Catholic teaching on sex at the graduation ceremony at Georgetown University.

A theology professor and several students walked out during his speech and about 70 faculty members later protested in writing that his remarks were inappropriate.

"Much of this difference is cultural," Reese said. "There's a great concern among African Christians, who live face to face with Muslims, that taking liberal views on these issues would put them under pressure from Muslims and their local cultures."

While African and South American clerics are often theological conservatives, their views on social justice can be to the left of what many Catholics in rich countries think.

"They don't think free enterprise and globalisation will save the world," Reese pointed out. "At the next conclave, the Third World cardinals will insist the next pope is very liberal on social justice and peace."