JOHANNESBURG/NAIROBI (Reuters) - As an Anglican row over gay clergy deepens, growing numbers of conservative American priests are abandoning the liberal U.S. church and pledging allegiance to traditionalist African bishops instead.
Africans, who take a tough line on homosexuality, are keen to recruit the dissident priests as bishops under their own authority and to provide a new spiritual home for their clusters of wealthy U.S. congregations.
But liberals say African bishops are violating church rules by setting up fiefdoms in the United States and deepening a crisis that threatens to split the Anglican communion, a world-wide federation of 38 member churches.
“It’s a terrible breach of longstanding Christian tradition. You don’t invade someone else’s territory just because you disagree with them,” said Jan Nunley, deputy communications director for the U.S. Episcopal Church.
Traditionalist Anglicans, mostly from developing countries, are at loggerheads with the small but wealthy Episcopal Church — the main Anglican church in the United States headed by liberal Archbishop Katharine Jefferts Schori — over whether to ordain openly gay priests.
Conservatives say Anglican provinces overseas have taken hundreds of the 7,000 Episcopal congregations under their wing, although liberals say the number is close to 70.
The Church of Rwanda started adopting conservative U.S. congregations in 2000 as part of its missionary outreach. Its Anglican Mission to the Americas group says it began with seven churches and now has 116, all under Rwandan authority.
Outspoken Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola caused a storm in May when he consecrated dissident Episcopal priest Martyn Minns as bishop of a new Nigerian church in the United States.
And now archbishops in Kenya and Uganda plan to consecrate three priests as bishops for breakaway orthodox congregations in the United States in coming weeks, creating more conservative African outposts amid the liberal American mainstream.
“In Uganda, we have provided a home for refugees from Congo, Rwanda, and Sudan,” said Ugandan Archbishop Henry Orombi, who is consecrating John Guernsey of Virginia on September 2. “Now, we are also providing a home for ecclesiastical refugees from America.”
Kenyan Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi will consecrate Americans Bill Atwood and Bill Murdoch on August 30 as assistant bishops in the province of Kenya, looking after a handful of U.S. churches.
The 77-million-strong Anglican church has been divided since 2003 when its 2.4-million-member U.S. branch consecrated Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in its history.
Conservatives say the U.S. church has disobeyed biblical commands and broken with Anglican teaching by backing gay priests, while liberals support a looser interpretation of scripture and say Anglicanism has always embraced diversity.
The Africans say they want to rescue U.S. churches and individuals who might otherwise abandon Anglicanism.
“We are not undermining the authority of anybody. We are actually saving a situation of people who so much need us,” Kenya’s Nzimbi told Reuters. “Otherwise if they are left on their own they would be like sheep without a shepherd.”
Anglican leader Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is struggling to prevent full-blown schism and has appealed to the Africans to halt the consecrations. He has not invited Robinson and Minns to attend a key Anglican conference next year.
Jim Naughton, canon of communications for the Washington diocese, said most defecting parishes were small. He suggested financial gain could be a factor for struggling African churches — a charge they vehemently deny.
“The budgets of large American churches are sometimes larger than the budgets of entire African countries,” he said.
Additional reporting by Francis Kwera in Kampala