Va. Traditionalist Represents Developing World

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007; B01

Shortly after becoming an Episcopal priest in the late 1970s, Martyn Minns visited Tanzania and was changed forever.

"I was just blown away by the faith, the commitment, the cost of being a Christian" on a continent where the religion's followers are an embattled minority in some places.

The image of an intense, miracle-working God worth fighting for has fueled the conservative Fairfax City priest for decades as he and those like him have felt increasingly sidelined in the Episcopal Church, with its progressive politics and sometimes staid worship style.

But the dry-witted native Brit isn't feeling isolated lately.

With bonds growing between conservative Protestants in the West and the booming, traditional Christian churches in the developing world, Minns has become an international power player. This week, the 63-year-old former Mobil Oil executive is in Tanzania at a meeting of top leaders of the Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church. He is there as an adviser to clergy from African, Asian and Latin American countries.

The notion of a 6-foot-4 white man from the affluent, suburban Truro Church in Fairfax representing the developing world may seem odd, but it is quite natural as U.S. conservatives seek support abroad.

Minns has quickly become one of the best-known, most colorful conservative Episcopal figures in the United States, leading 11 Virginia congregations -- including 1,300-member Truro -- in the past few months to leave the Episcopal Church to join the Church of Nigeria. In a twist on the paradigm, the congregations joined a Nigerian "mission" set up in the United States for conservatives; Minns is its bishop.

To his supporters, Minns's alliance with charismatic, deeply traditional African Christians is the way of Christianity's future, linking followers to the part of the world where Jesus is very vibrant -- not the coldly intellectualized God of the West. Minns ecstatically plays tambourine in church and is comfortable with faith healings and speaking in tongues.

But to his detractors, Minns is a divisive figure, exploiting a romanticized, oversimplified version of the developing world to pump energy into a conservative, anti-gay theology.

He is also a public face in the escalating property dispute between conservatives who left the U.S. church and Episcopal officials.

Regardless, some church observers view him as one who stands for those who look at Africa and see the early, passionate, embattled days of Christianity.

"Historically the church has prospered best when it's been a persecuted minority," said the Rev. Milind Sojwal of All Angels Church in New York City, where Minns worked from 1988-91.

But the future of the union is ambiguous. The most immediate local question is: How long can a suburban D.C. parish live under the leadership of the Church of Nigeria, with its ban on female clergy, strict controls on divorce and limited acceptance of polygamy?

Advocates hope Minns's new mission, the Truro-based Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), will become part of a new, conservative U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion that will replace the Episcopal Church. CANA comprises 30 congregations.

"He is remarkably trusted by bishops of the Global South," Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, another major U.S. Episcopal conservative, said of Minns, using the term for the developing world.

Minns was drawn into religious service in the 1970s at St. Paul's Episcopal, a Connecticut church that is considered a birthplace of the charismatic renewal movement among mainline Protestants.

"We wouldn't be here without him," said the Rev. Ronald Gauss of Bishop Seabury Church in Groton, Conn. The church was struggling in the early 1980s, when Minns -- then working 80 miles away-- volunteered to lead classes and worship services and to offer administrative support.

While a rector at All Angels, Minns created a powerful ministry to the homeless that Sojwal said defines the church.

"It was very, very raw and real," Paul Johnson, then director of worship arts, said of the services. "Under Martyn, that period was explosively creative."

In an apparent endorsement of his leadership during a controversial time, pledges at Truro for 2007 are already above the total given in 2006.

But even some who agree with Minns that the Episcopal Church has become too liberal, particularly after the election of a gay bishop in 2003, feel uneasy about Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola's support for a proposed law that would make it illegal for Nigerian gays to gather or advocate.

"This isn't to condone gay activity, but a church that advocates the loss of basic human rights is simply wrong," read a report by two dissenting vestry members of Herndon's Church of the Epiphany, where members voted last month to join CANA.

Minns said he'd rather live with the Church of Nigeria's compromises than those of the U.S. church. "The Church of Nigeria has made it clear that as long as we hold firm to the tenets of classical Christianity, we have considerable flexibility," Minns said in an e-mail this week from Tanzania.

Although Minns has been a focal point for racial subtexts, he said his critics are the ones with the problems. When he hears people question an alliance with Nigeria, his reaction is, "you know what that means." But it cuts both ways. Some members of the Virginia churches that have joined CANA don't embrace the intercontinental alliance, often emphasizing their "American bishop" and rejecting being labeled "Nigerian" in the jumble of new monikers that have resulted from the split.

Minns tried for decades to work within the system. He was short-listed for bishop in U.S. dioceses five times but was never chosen.

"I see this as kind of sad, the brokenness," Christopher Rose, a psychologist who was ordained with Minns, said of the Episcopal community. "But he'd been sitting on the fence for a long time, one foot in and one foot out. That's not a very good place to be, is it?"

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