CHICAGO (Reuters) - An African archbishop’s defiant intervention in the U.S. Episcopal Church has sent new shock waves through a global Anglican church already badly divided and facing possible schism over gay issues.
Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria kept up his high profile attack this week, saying the leadership of the U.S. branch of the Worldwide Anglican Communion was “insulting and condescending” to the church at large.
“The decisions, actions, defiance and continuing intransigence of the Episcopal Church are at the heart of our crisis,” he told Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and titular leader of the 77-million-member global church.
“They are determined to pursue their own unbiblical agenda and exacerbate our current divisions,” he said in a letter to Williams, who had asked him to stay out of the United States and not participate in a ceremony last Saturday in Virginia.
Akinola ignored the plea from Williams and an earlier one from the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. He carried out the ceremony in which Bishop Martyn Minns, an Episcopalian, was installed as head of a new Nigerian-based church branch designed as a refuge for orthodox American believers.
The 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church has been splintered since 2003, when it consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first openly gay bishop in more than 450 years of Anglican church history.
Some congregations have already placed themselves under the jurisdiction of conservative bishops in Africa and elsewhere. The Episcopal Church has said that only 45 out of more than 7,400 congregations have voted to break away.
Akinola is a defender of traditional Christianity and a leader of the Anglican Communion’s “Global South,” churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America that now account for half of the world’s Anglican church membership.
Akinola’s action “seems to lay out a claim that he has a better sense than the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that’s a bold claim,” said Mark Sisk, the Episcopal Bishop of New York.
Last week’s events are more than just another tremor on an existing fault line, Sisk said in an interview, and what may be very significant is that the Archbishop of Canterbury tried to stop Akinola.
His is “a new public voice in this and welcome from my prospective,” Sisk said.
Williams earlier agreed to come to the United States in September to meet with the Episcopal bishops when they again meet to wrestle with such issues as gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions — both of which are opposed by the Anglican church at large.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans are organized more as a federation of national churches without hierarchical lines of authority. It would be hard to say that Akinola’s action is unprecedented, added the Rev. Ian Douglas, professor of world mission and global Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
Over the years, he said, bishops have often taken “personal initiative” trying to balance “the relation between their own church and their roles and responsibilities, interests and concerns in the wider Anglican Communion,” he told Reuters.
“That’s not an easy negotiation,” he added. “We’re trying to hold together two realities that just by definition have tension — the local and the global.”
There is no “strong central agency that has the authority and the power to compel anything across the Communion. ... We are neither as centralized as the Roman Catholic Church nor as de-centralized” as some others, he added.
The conservative American Anglican Council called last week’s development “a high point in North American Anglicanism.”
“The energy and zeal of the Church of Nigeria have come to the U.S. ... and we pray that the result will be a re-strengthening of the historic, biblical Anglican faith in this nation after decades of accelerating moral and theological decline in the Episcopal Church,” said Canon David Anderson, a leader of the group.