Archbishop Challenges the Church
Saturday, May 13, 2006
CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Twelve years ago, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu successfully fought for the end of legalized racism in apartheid South Africa. Now, his successor, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, has turned his sights on his own church and says the time has come to abandon its "practices of discrimination."
Ever since the 2003 consecration of openly gay Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, Ndungane has made himself an anomaly in Africa by raising a liberal voice on a continent where Robinson and the American church have been loudly condemned.
"The Anglican Communion should be on the forefront of fighting social ills and not bothering about what Gene Robinson may be doing or not doing," Ndungane said in an interview here. "He has been elected by his people and the people are comfortable with that."
Calling homosexuality a "pastoral, secondary problem," the archbishop of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa estimates that 70 percent of the world's 77 million Anglicans have grown tired of discussing the divisive topic and wish to return to the "life and death issues of this world."
Included in Ndungane's fundamental issues are alleviation of severe poverty, the HIV-AIDS epidemic and educational inequalities.
"Of course, you will always get people who are disgruntled, but nowadays, because of technology, minorities can make the loudest noise and tend to confuse people," he said.
Presiding over a province stretching from South Africa to the northern limits of Angola and Mozambique, Ndungane and his spiritual domain have been known for liberalism since the independence movements of the late 20th century. The southern province has traditionally led the Anglican Church in Africa in grappling with a number of controversial issues, including opening leadership positions to women and celibate homosexuals.
But on a continent where homosexuality is a criminal offense in 29 countries, Ndungane's calls for acceptance have alienated his African peers. Peter J. Akinola, the archbishop of Nigeria, has accused Ndungane of "failing to grasp the nature of the issues at stake."
In public statements since 2003, Akinola has led conservative Africans in condemning Ndungane for supporting what he called a "Satanic attack on God's church" and the arrogance of "those whose flagrant disregard of the stand of the entire Anglican Communion has plunged us into this sad and avoidable controversy."
The turmoil that now embroils the Anglican Communion -- which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States -- threatens to reach a critical peak this summer when Episcopalians meet in June at their triennial General Convention in Columbus, Ohio.
Ndungane often expresses strong support of the Episcopal Church, which he praises for effectively using its wealth and resources to advance human development.
He just as quickly points to the church as a prime example of the "devil's ability to attack those who do good and distract them from the big picture."
Such rhetoric has made conservative Anglicans worldwide uncomfortable, even within the liberal precincts of Southern Africa. The Rev. Bethlehem Nopece, bishop of Port Elizabeth, called the ordination of Robinson regrettable and warned Episcopalians to "tread cautiously" in decision-making this summer.
"If the written Word of the God still holds, we must avoid [such ordinations] at all costs," he said in an interview.
When Ndungane sent a message of congratulations to Robinson shortly after his ordination, Nopece issued a statement saying, "The Archbishop of Cape Town has not spoken on behalf of the faithful of this province, as he has not heard the mind of the Church fully through deliberations of its general councils and synods on this issue."
From his headquarters in the shadow of the Table Mountain range, Ndungane has been mounting an aggressive campaign to refocus the mission of the church toward the completion of the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals. With 2015 as a target, the U.N. objectives include cutting poverty in half, providing universal primary education and fighting such diseases as AIDS and malaria.
Ndungane recently launched a steering committee to plan a 2007 Anglican Conference in South Africa on poverty, debt, trade and HIV-AIDS that will bring together like-minded Anglicans from around the world.
Diane M. Porter, deputy for Episcopal administration in the Diocese of Long Island and one of the archbishop's longtime American allies, said the partnership provides an outlet for addressing issues her diocese feels are most important today.
"I stand with Archbishop Ndungane in saying we're ready to move on. We've got more serious work that needs to be done than bickering over these same issues. This project is the next natural step in moving those goals forward," Porter said.
Last December, South Africa's highest court paved the way for the nation to become the first in the continent to legalize gay marriage by ruling that legislation barring gay marriage was unconstitutional.
"One of the key things that we have learned both as a country and as a church is the principle of non-discrimination, because the people who were discriminated against [under apartheid] were judged on grounds of things they couldn't alter," said Ndungane, who spent several years as a political prisoner in the famed Robben Island penitentiary for involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle.
As the U.S. Episcopal showdown looms, Ndungane says the Anglican Communion must continue to remember the injustices of the past and move forward by celebrating differences rather than suppressing them.
"I've got great confidence that in spite of our differences, that within our diversity, the vast majority of Anglicans and Episcopalians want to get on with work," Ndungane said.
"They want to make a difference in other people's lives, want to be true to the ethos of Anglicanism -- which is living with the difference in others."