A visiting African bishop had been invited to speak at a California church. But when he made it clear that he condemns homosexual activity, he says he was barred from the pulpit by the parish priest.
The incident rippled through the U.S. Episcopal Church, stirring ruffled feelings and a flurry of cross-country diplomacy.
"It was the total shock of my life for anything like this in our communion," said Anglican Bishop Alexander Muge, of Kenya, whose tour was almost derailed by the affair. "I believe I am the first bishop of the worldwide Anglican communion to have been denied the right to preach by a priest."
The affair loosed a string of comments in this country and abroad, including some by dissidents in the Episcopal Church, one of 28 national branches of the 70 million-member Anglican communion.
Bishop William E. Swing, of San Francisco, said he suspected that Muge was "used by some background group that is trying to exploit his moral bias in matters of human sexuality to further their own cause."
Noting that the U.S. church has been struggling with the issue of homosexuality, Swing said: "For Bishop Muge to fly in here, and in a few days and with an extremely limited participation in this family problem, to pronounce his conclusion, is a marginal contribution at best."
Swing added that such voices "deserve to be heard. Something of God's truth might just be contained in their words."
The Rev. Titus Oates, of Fort Worth, executive officer of the Anglican Synod of America, a dissenting bloc in the Episcopal Church that accuses the church of doctrinal moral laxity and wrongly ordaining women, said: "The incident in California is but a further demonstration of the rejection of the Bible as the word of God."
Oates added, "It grieves us when an attempt is made to suppress a bishop . . . . We see this incident as symptomatic of the efforts of those who seek to undermine the very foundations of our church."
The episode occurred while Muge, 41, head of Kenya's Eldoret Diocese, was on a speaking tour in behalf of African Team Ministries, a U.S.-based ecumenical agency supporting community-improvement projects in East Africa.
Prior to an appearance last week at St. Luke's Church in the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek, Muge said he dined with parish leaders, discussing rapid church growth in Kenya in contrast to U.S. church decline.
"I pointed out that homosexuals and lesbians have taken over church leadership in the U.S.A., and there is no way God is going to bless this church with growth," Muge said in a subsequent statement telegraphed to Kenya.
He said the pastor, the Rev. Gary Ost, became furious, citing his own homosexuality, and barred Muge from the pulpit when he insisted on preaching against homosexual practices.
Ost had "no comment" about the episode, his secretary said.
Muge, in a telephone interview, said, "We do not feel we should be censored in what we preach. I cannot compromise the gospel."
At one point, Muge said, he was so upset by the affair that he considered abandoning his tour and resigning from African Team Ministries, which is gathering funds for a major well-drilling project by Anglicans and Presbyterians in Kenya.
However, talks with team officials and a series of telephone conferences with officials at Episcopal headquarters in New York averted the rupture.
"I don't blame the bishop for being angry at what he saw as an insult and what he sees as immorality," said Margaret Larom, of the church's World Mission department. "We need the word of Christians from Africa . . . . At the same time he ought to be sensitive to our cultural situation and respect his brother bishop."
The discussions resulted in rescheduling a news conference from outside Bishop Swing's diocese to inside it so Swing's statement could be presented along with Muge's protest.
David Morisey, a Pleasant Hill, Calif., businessman and backer of the group critical of current Episcopal policies, issued running news releases about the affair.
Keith Jesson, of African Team Ministries, based in the Los Angeles suburb of Sierra Madre, said it seemed the sequence "was being orchestrated."