When the missionaries came to Africa, they had

the Bible and we had the land. They taught us to pray with our eyes

closed. When we opened them, we had the Bible in our hand, and they

had the land.

—Jomo Kenyatta, Kenyan independence

leader and first president

Harold Lewis, an African-American priest who once served as national

director of black ministries for the Episcopal Church,

finds an irony in the fact that white, conservative

Episcopalians collaborate closely with African and Asian bishops, but, “coming

as they often do from lily-white environments, they have little by

way of relationships with African Americans.”

The Episcopal Church is a small but significant Protestant

denomination that has struggled mightily with sexuality,

race and authority—and

the reverberations have been felt across the world. This battle has

played out most visibly in the wake of the election in June 2003 of

a white, openly gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as a bishop in the Episcopal

Diocese of New Hampshire.

Lewis and many other prominent African-American Episcopalians

supported Robinson’s election. But many members of their congregations

are opposed to gays in the church, reflecting a sharp division on this

issue in the black community here and abroad. That dissension, combined

with the sense of many people of color that racism in the church is

being ignored while gay and lesbian issues are being addressed, has

opened a wedge that conservatives have exploited.

Lewis now heads Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh,

Pennsylvania, a liberal parish (congregation) in

one of the church’s

most conservative dioceses (regional groupings of Episcopal congregations).

Robert Duncan, a white bishop who heads the Pittsburgh diocese, was

a vociferous critic of Robinson’s ordination. As part of his

work with conservatives who oppose gays and lesbians in church leadership,

Duncan serves as president of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses

and Parishes, a traditionalist effort to reclaim the church from its “liberal

leanings.” The Network, founded in January 2004 by four white,

male bishops in response to Robinson’s election and other recent

events, has sought to have the Episcopal Church kicked out of its worldwide

church body and replaced by the Network. And to do so, in an unusual

twist with racial implications, they went to people of color—abroad.

The denomination has seen new alliances built between

global church leaders, often with the appearance

of fighting racism and discrimination, but for varying

agendas. In Pittsburgh in 1999, in partnership with

the evangelical international relief organization

World Vision, Duncan initiated a diocesan project to support Rwandan

refugees. To help make the connection, refrigerator magnets with

images of Rwandan children were provided to participating church

members. In his travels around the diocese, Duncan frequently pointed

to the magnets as evidence of the diocese’s commitment to eradicate

racism. “It’s doing nothing of the kind; it may even be

perpetuating racism,” stated Lewis, arguing that a churchperson

may point to one of their magnets to “prove” their anti-racism

commitment, when in fact they may never have had a black person in

their home. Emmanuel Kolini, the archbishop of the Rwandan church,

visited Pittsburgh to support this project, but as Lewis noted, at

the end of the day, “The Kolinis of the world are going home.

I’m not; I live here.” In November 2004, the diocese ended

its Rwandan project, and launched a new one in Uganda with Henry Orombi,

the Anglican archbishop of Uganda, who has been one of the most vocal

critics of gays and lesbians in the worldwide church.

Infighting Among Progressives

While some progressive activists have worked tirelessly

to build coalitions across lines of injustice, others have seemed

to give up on their international church colleagues. Liberal, white

U.S. bishops have been accused of intellectual elitism in discussing

their overseas partners. Local church members have also been complicit:

at a San Francisco meeting in the late 1990s, white participants

talked about “those African bishops” as the problem that

needed to be solved. And at a May 2002 gathering of queer religious

activists in New York City, a white, gay Episcopalian summarized

the Anglican world’s problems as that of Africans “monkeying

around” in the rest of the church. To the shock of some in

the room, he finished his presentation by saying, “All I have

to say to these bishops is: Go back to the jungle where you came


On the other side of the coin, many people of color

have found themselves needing to condemn the positions

of some in their communities. “I have been very disappointed with my black brothers

and sisters,” said Jayne Oasin, an African-American Episcopal

priest who has principal responsibility for anti-racism programs at

the national office. “They don’t connect the dots of oppression

to realize that when you scratch a homophobe, or an anti-Semite, the

next level down is a racist.”

Lyn Headley-Deavours, the justice missioner for the “The Oasis” in

the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, echoed Oasin’s comments: “In

the black community, there’s an awful lot of assuming that ‘it

doesn’t apply to us.’” She linked this to internalized

oppression and offered sadly, “I hate the shame and self-hatred

and breeding of further oppression that is so destructive.”

Oasin, Headley-Deavours and several other black leaders

interviewed for this article all named a sensitive

issue: significant numbers of gays in black churches

remain silenced. Noting serious concerns about safety, these leaders

indicated that many black church leaders are gay but not “out,” and that homophobia is sometimes

voiced at the expense, and amidst the silencing, of the most dedicated

members of their congregations.

As progressive Episcopalians have stepped back from

their international relationships, perhaps seeking

to mend the rifts at home, some overseas church leaders

warned what the outcome would be. Khotso Makhulu,

a Botswanan and then-archbishop of the Province of Central Africa,

said, “Let not the intolerance of a variety

of contexts inexorably lead us to [churchwide] intolerance, which if

unchecked, will find us with a band of vigilantes and fundamentalists.”

Conservative international Anglicans and U.S. Episcopalians

have jumped at the opportunity to exploit this rift.

Funding streams were created to support churches

in impoverished nations. Bishops were flown across

the world to meet with one another. Each hand patted

the other’s back. While most people argue that each community is

seeking to take advantage of the other, an African priest who is deeply

involved in partnership work between the U.S. and Africa, speaking

on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, described the process

as less quid pro quo and more as “[W]hite men are using these

[international] people to do their dirty games.”

Black leaders in the U.S. express a combination of

frustration and resentment at the alliance. “Some of these African

leaders do not remember that these U.S. conservative friends were not

there for them during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

They were not there for them to fight AIDS when that struggle began,” argued

another black foreign priest who works throughout the African continent

and demanded anonymity. “Their struggle for power in the church

prevents them from analyzing who these partners are.”

A “Liberal” Church?

In progressive circles, it’s been tempting in recent years to

think that Christianity is either an archaic vestige of a colonial

era—an institution that has been on the decline and will soon

disappear—or perhaps it lives on as the realm of born-again Pentecostals,

people who have an axe to grind against the social and political mainstream.

On the contrary, Christianity is still the mainstream in the U.S.:

85 percent of the nation’s population claims to be Christian,

and 60 percent of the country is enrolled in churches, according to

respected sources (World Christian Database and Yearbook

of American and Canadian Churches, respectively). And Christians encompass a broad

cross-section of the country, with evangelicals forming only a portion

of the community.

For the past two years, the Episcopal Church has

captured international headlines in mainstream media,

tied to what many see as a new phase in the American culture wars.

This has been an unusual amount of attention in a fairly secularized

modern society, but in the long view of history, it is comfortable

territory for the denomination. The Episcopal Church is a part of

the worldwide Anglican Communion—it represents one of 38 provinces covering more than

150 countries across the globe. The “mother church” of

this global body is the Church of England, which played a key role

in the imperialist spread of the British Empire.

Since colonial times, many U.S. political leaders

and captains of industry have been Episcopalians,

including 11 of 41 presidents. That legacy continues

today, despite the church representing less than one percent of the

nation’s population (with approximately

2.2 million members). Some of the most right-wing politicians in Washington,

including Senate hawks like Ted Stevens and John McCain, sit alongside

40 other Episcopalians in Congress, while an Episcopal priest and former

senator, John Danforth, just stepped down as U.S. Ambassador to the

U.N. Just over a decade ago, during the George H.W. Bush administration,

it seemed as if the entire military junta were Episcopalian men: the

president, Donald Rumsfeld, James Baker, George Schultz, Colin Powell,

Norman Schwarzkopf, Oliver North, Dick Armey, and the list goes on.

(The current president, George W. Bush, was baptized as an Episcopalian

but had a “born-again” experience that led to him to convert

to the United Methodist Church.)

Despite those conservative, mostly white voices,

the Episcopal Church has made modest inroads at reaching

out to people of color. Alongside long-time African-American

and Native-American congregations, many of which have existed for

100 to 200 years, now sit dozens of new Latino and Asian-American

worshipping communities that were started in the 1980s and ’90s.

Reflecting the growth of communities of color in

the church, slowly but surely there were subsequent

changes in decision-making positions too. Following

the civil rights era, a handful of black priests

were chosen to lead historically white, powerful parishes and dioceses.

This was a significant transition from their historic role of serving

only “colored” churches. In the mid-1970s, women were ordained

to the priesthood. This shocking development precipitated a backlash

that led many conservatives to exit the denomination. Next, in 1979,

a new prayer book featured contemporary language about God and humanity,

further angering conservatives. And finally, in 1989, the Episcopal

Church opened its most prestigious institution—the sacred, historic

order of bishops—to a woman. Barbara Harris, an African-American

corporate executive from Philadelphia who had become a leading advocate

for racial, economic and gender justice in the church and society,

became the first female bishop in Anglicanism.

Nowadays, people of color occupy prominent positions

in the church’s structure: 34 percent of the current members

of the national Executive Council, which serves as a governing board

for the denomination, and about 20 percent of the national staff with

managerial positions are people of color—both are numbers that

far exceed their proportional representation in the church at large.

In August 2003, the church met for its national General

Convention—a decision-making body of bishops, clergy and lay

leaders—held every three years. More than 250 resolutions were

passed in parliamentary processes, but two controversial decisions

stood out from the long list. One resolution supported local faith

communities as they “explore and experience liturgies celebrating

and blessing same-sex unions.” The second confirmed the election

of Robinson, who lived in a committed relationship with a male partner,

to be New Hampshire’s next bishop. Both resolutions passed with

clear majorities. For the outvoted community of church conservatives,

these decisions were seen as the culmination of decades of “oppression” of

conservative theology and tantamount to a declaration of war.

Their response was swift and condemnatory. And in

contrast to the battles of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, U.S.

conservative Episcopalians found two new, important allies. One provided

the money and resources to organize and tell the world what they believed.

The other provided a legitimating voice for their distress.

Follow the Money, If You Can

In the 1980s and early ’90s, a new force emerged. The Institute

for Religion & Democracy (IRD), a neoconservative Christian think

tank well connected with members of the Reagan/Bush administration,

was founded and funded with millions of dollars from right-wing individuals

and foundations.

Emboldened by the takeover of the Southern Baptist

Convention by fundamentalists in the 1970s and ’80s—whereby

moderate Baptists were removed from national leadership positions and

seminaries through a systemic, step-by-step process that sought to

control both power and theological direction—the IRD made that

conservative success story its mandate. In 2000, the IRD prepared a

strategic plan known as “Reforming America’s Churches Project

2001-2004.” The internal document outlined a process of discrediting

the leadership of three primary Protestant denominations: the Episcopal

Church, the Presbyterian Church, USA and the United Methodist Church.

They would work to expose the church’s “reflexive alliance

with the political left” and to close many of their national


The IRD proposed to work hand-in-glove with the American

Anglican Council, a collaborative of “renewal” groups that

had been resisting changes in the church. Over a period of a decade,

on average one new “traditionalist” Anglican/Episcopal

organization had been conceived each year, usually with overlapping

names of leaders and sponsors. The Council, founded in 1996 by two

former Reagan Justice Department officials, an Episcopal bishop and

the director of IRD, brought together most of the major players—a

veritable rogue’s gallery of reactionary activists, theologians

and disaffected male priests, all with an axe to grind against the

Episcopal Church. It was a fortuitous time to create this new coalition.

Christianity’s Changing Face

Led by the Council, white U.S. conservatives forged

a partnership with international church leaders.

For conservatives had noticed another important statistic:

as the end of the 20th century approached, an estimated

two billion people around the world claimed to follow Christianity.

In his recent book The Next Christendom (2002, Oxford

University Press), author Philip Jenkins mused, “Soon, the phrase ‘white

Christian’ may sound a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising

as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’ Such people exist, but a slight

eccentricity is implied.” Jenkins is among many scholars who

propose that the stereotype of Christianity as a Western religion is

now out of date.

Jenkins suggests Christianity has turned into a “post-colonial

religion” because of a combination of factors, such as the indigenization

of Christianity into many cultures around the world and the translation

of the Bible into hundreds of languages. As well, Christianity’s

changing face may be due to the relative secularization and declining

birth rate in Europe and North America, compared to the rapid population

growth of developing nations and the conversion of millions by evangelicals.

According to Jenkins, “By 2050, the global total of Anglicans

will be approaching 150 million, of whom only a tiny minority will

be white Europeans.”

While progressive Christian activists had centered

their attention on winning justice battles in their

home church, conservatives paid close attention to

these changing global demographics.

In 1998, a meeting of 800 Anglican bishops from around

the world was held in England. Titled the “Lambeth Conference

of Bishops,” the gathering is hosted every ten years to bring

together the church’s most visible leaders to build relationships

with one another and issue a wide range of statements on social and

theological issues to the worldwide church. International Anglican

meetings like the Lambeth Conference are important for maintaining “church

unity,” since a broad range of worship practices and leadership

styles exists around the world. One of Anglicanism’s defining

characteristics has been its embrace of the “via media,” a

phrase that captures the “middle way” and the church’s

historic attempts to embrace an inclusive set of beliefs. As Lambeth

1998 began, for the first time bishops from the Global South realized

en masse that they outnumbered those from the North. There were exciting

aspects to this numerical shift, including the prospect that critical

issues like the international debt crisis and interfaith concerns could

be addressed in creative, new ways. Sadly, the conference proved divisive,

as two other topics received disproportionate attention: the presence

of women bishops for the first time and, particularly, a ferocious

debate over human sexuality.

In one well-publicized incident, a Nigerian bishop

engaged in a shouting match with a white, gay English

deacon, condemning the “lifestyle choice” of gays and lesbians. Barbara Harris,

attending her first Lambeth Conference since becoming a bishop in 1989,

announced to the press that she was relieved she’d never have

to go to another one and that “the vitriolic, fundamentalist

rhetoric of some African, Asian and other bishops of color, who were

in the majority, was in my opinion reflective of the European and North

American missionary influence propounded in the Southern Hemisphere

nations during the 18th, l9th and early 20th centuries.” Coming

from a prophetic black activist, this was harsh and unusually public

criticism of fellow people of color, but Harris minced no words about

her sense that many bishops from developing nations were suffering

from a form of internalized oppression. Their theological arguments,

she said, were based on a sense of truth “that not only had been

handed to their forebears, but had been used to suppress them.”

Divide and Conquer

At this point, all the players are identifying as

victims. According to Oasin, this means that everyone identifies

primarily with a social location that permits the person to speak

in opposition to power. Liberals believe that African bishops hold

a level of power—since, after all, they have risen to the elite

status of the episcopacy (the order of bishops). Conservatives in

the U.S. also believe they are being persecuted, since they have

lost the trappings of power they once held in the church. International

conservatives feel they lack power, since their explosive numerical

growth has not translated into either increased leadership in the

global church or financial resources, and they see gays and lesbians

as being part of the U.S. power elite. Both conservative constituencies

believe that the rise of Islam in many cultures is cause for alarm

and a reason that an “orthodox” version of the Christian

faith is necessary to keep their religious communities safe, both

politically and spiritually. Ironically, Anglican conservatives here

and abroad differ significantly on war and economic globalization

concerns: while U.S. conservatives tend to support American military

and corporate interests abroad, many international Anglicans have

seen sexuality issues as another form of U.S. imperialism and connect

it to the government’s foreign policy decisions vis-à-vis

Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. They argue that the U.S. church’s

justification of its recent decisions was “because we can do

it,” the same way that they see the Bush administration’s

political doctrine.

Although progressive U.S. Episcopal organizations

have built alliances among their leaders, this model

has not translated well to either the grassroots level or international

partnerships. In part, as both Oasin and Headley-Deavours said, this

is because many constituents create a “hierarchy of oppression.” Gays and

lesbians still seek full inclusion in the church and see that as primary.

Communities of color continue to point to the ongoing struggle against

institutional racism, which they argue needs to be addressed before

any other oppression. Women find they are not welcome into leadership

roles in many parts of the church and are frustrated that there are

U.S. dioceses (not to mention one-half of the worldwide church) that

still won’t ordain them. And few of these targeted groups have

managed to develop sustainable relationships with international allies,

who have a host of other peace and justice concerns.

Ultimately, interviews with church leaders around

the world suggest that sexuality is only a minor

source of the conflict in the Anglican world. Gay

and lesbian issues serve, instead, as a smokescreen for the primary

tensions concerning exclusion and power. The “homosexuality agenda,” as conservatives call it, is

used as a divide-and-conquer tactic, sometimes setting people of color

against one another and confusing progressives as to who their allies

are. Jenny Te Paa, a Maori woman who serves as dean of the College

of St. John the Evangelist in Auckland, New Zealand, argued, “The

racializing of sexual politics is playing right into the hands of conservatives.

. .partly because white liberal capitulation to the ‘cause of

color’ is also acting as a very effective silencing mechanism.”

The continuing imbalance of power in the international

church adds to the dissension. “Unless we solve power-sharing—or ‘authority’—there

will be no peace and justice in the Anglican Communion,” explained

one of the anonymous black priests. “African church leaders are

saying to the Western church, ‘At one point in the past, you

had the numbers and the resources. Now we have the numbers, and you

still have the resources.’”

There are those who believe that the Anglican Communion

will soon split, with “liberal” churches of the North being

shunted aside by the growing churches of the South. That seems unlikely,

since there are too many differences of belief and practice in each

part of the world for a simple break to occur. There is, after all,

no homogenous South just as there is no monolithic North. As Te Paa

wondered, “Where do the assumptions about the Global South leave

indigenous peoples?…[M]any of us are geographically located within

the ‘Global South,’ and yet many of us certainly do not

hold to a conservative [sexuality] agenda at all—we are too busy

fighting for justice across a myriad of political fronts. For indigenous

people to be sidetracked into fighting a single identity issue with

such undue intensity is simply foolishness.”

In December 2004, the church’s challenges with race, sexuality

and power played out one more time. The next Lambeth

Conference will be held in 2008, and plans had been announced for it

to be held for the first time in Africa. Cape Town was to have been

the site, providing an historic opportunity for Anglicanism to visibly

claim its domain in the Global South. However, the South African province—which

has many openly gay priests—had opposed the anti-gay lobby. This

earned them the enmity of fellow Africans and other

leaders in the South, and support was withdrawn for their bid to host

Lambeth 2008. Instead, the conference will be held back in Canterbury,

England, where a divided church will again seek to find “the

middle way.”