Conservative N.Va. Priest Installed as Anglican Bishop
Head of Episcopal Split to Lead Nigerian Offshoot

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

A powerful Nigerian Anglican archbishop defied top church leaders yesterday by coming to Northern Virginia and installing as one of his bishops a local minister who recently broke with the U.S. church after accusing it of being too liberal.

The festive ceremony thrilled those who believe the U.S. church has become too permissive but highlighted divisions that threaten to crack the Anglican Communion.

Archbishop Peter J. Akinola leads a movement that, among other things, believes the Bible is unequivocally opposed to homosexuality and divorced clergy. Hundreds turned out to watch him install Martyn Minns as "missionary bishop" for an outpost that he created for America.

The worshipers, who have left the U.S. wing -- the Episcopal Church -- applauded and waved their hands in prayer as bishops from Canada, England, the United States, Nigeria and Uganda sat on the stage in white-and-red robes.

The installation, held at a 3,500-seat Christian event center next to the Potomac Mills, was high-profile fuel for the debate in the 70 million-member Anglican Communion over the proper reading of Scripture on homosexuality and other issues. The questions have not only roiled the Episcopal Church but also divided other denominations worldwide over the past decade.

"Our name is now synonymous with discontent," Minns said from a stage lined with large purple-and-yellow banners reading "CANA" -- for his mission, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. "It is a disaster, but it's not the end of the story. God wants to transform this into a celebration, and CANA is a gift."

Episcopal Church leaders maintain that Minns and his ideological peers are trying to oversimplify Jesus's teachings in a complex world.

In the days before yesterday's service, Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and head of the entire communion, and Katharine Jefferts-Schori, head of the U.S. church, asked Akinola not to oversee Minns's installation.

The church leaders said Akinola's appearance would exacerbate tensions. However, the communion is not hierarchical, and leaders do not have the power to make demands or punish.

Minns, longtime rector of the prominent Truro Church in Fairfax City, became a global figure in December when he led 11 Virginia churches out of the Episcopal Church; all placed themselves under the leadership of Akinola. They included some of the largest Episcopal congregations in the country.

The Nigerian church, the largest in the Anglican family, is booming in membership -- unlike the U.S. church. Akinola has emerged in the past few years as one of the most prominent conservative Anglican leaders, but even his loyalists sometimes have concerns about him. Many Episcopalians noted last year that he supported a Nigerian bill that would jail gay men and lesbians who gathered or touched in public. The bill disappeared in the activity surrounding Nigeria's recent presidential election.

Yesterday's installation seemed to elevate a minister already on the rise. Since being picked last year to be a bishop of Nigeria, Minns has sat in the Nigerian House of Bishops, and he is one of a small number of advisers to leaders of growing branches in the developing world. His new group has 34 congregations, up from a dozen in November, including Truro and The Falls Church, as well as congregations in Texas, California and Colorado. A February meeting of communion leaders put forward the possibility of an alternative U.S. structure for conservative parishes.

Beyond the pomp of yesterday's service and the buzz, it is too early to predict the future of Minns's group and the conservative movement in general, clergy and scholars say.

Between the possibility of a split in the communion and a bitter legal battle just starting up between Minns's churches and the Diocese of Virginia over the properties of breakaway congregations, traditionalist Episcopalians are struggling to figure out where to place their efforts, resources and hopes.

It remains unclear what will happen to the church buildings and hard-raised money of congregations that choose to break away from the Episcopal Church. And there is uncertainty about whether the U.S. church will lose some standing among Anglicans worldwide -- and whether Minns's group will gain some.

Even Minns has said the uncertainty is stressful.

"One big danger when you're in turmoil is you look inward and hold on to what you've got. One of the big challenges is to keep reaching out," he said in an interview last week at Truro, whose sprawling facility he will soon vacate for a two-room suite across the street.

In the past decade, more than a half-dozen Anglican organizations have sprung up to support disaffected Americans, and there is a good deal of debate about who really represents them and who has clout.

"Most Episcopalians can't sort out all these groups. They overlap, change names, fall in and out of favor with one another. It's a major mapping exercise keeping them straight," said the Rev. William Sachs, a Richmond minister who recently served as director of research for the U.S. church.

Even some conservatives who theologically agree with Minns still disapprove of the way his group was created -- without seeking consensus among U.S. conservatives or other Anglican leaders.

"This isn't the right way, setting this up and then claiming it. It's unilateralist. It creates distrust," said the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a senior fellow at the conservative Anglican Communion Institute in Colorado.

Akinola initially said he created the group to serve Nigerians in the United States who were turned off by the U.S. church, but the group quickly shifted last year toward serving all conservatives and possibly being in position to became another branch of the communion -- if communion leaders approve such a dramatic change.

And still, the number of U.S. congregations that have left for other branches is only a few dozen, according to the Episcopal Church. There are more than 7,400 Episcopal congregations.

Today, Minns said, one-third of his 34 congregations are ethnically Nigerian. One-third are in Virginia, the rest elsewhere in the United States.

Radner said he sees other conservative groups declining and hears "well-founded rumors" that several U.S. bishops are looking hard at joining Minns.

Among those present for yesterday's ceremony was Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, who leads a group of U.S. parishes that remain in the Episcopal Church but are critical of it.

At the ceremony in Woodbridge, Marie Pinney bounced her infant happily in the foyer as a Nigerian American praise band sang on the stage.

"To me, this movement combines the best of all worlds -- to be banded with all these brothers and sisters from Nigeria. I can't imagine another group of Christians I'd rather be with," said Pinney, who grew up Baptist and worships at Truro. "I feel so much more in line with Archbishop Akinola. There are hardly any bishops in the Episcopal Church that I'd even want my children in Sunday school with."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company