Nigeria's top Anglican Church official warned Thursday that his 17.5 million members would have to sever their historic ties to the Church of England if it followed the lead of the U.S. Episcopal Church by accepting a gay bishop or otherwise condoning homosexuality.
Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, the leader of traditionalist forces in the Nigerian church, said its constitution had been rewritten this month in order to give its officials the freedom to break away if the British church adopted what he called a "revisionist agenda on homosexuality."
The changes deleted all references to the Church of England in Canterbury, the historic home of the Anglican faith. The denomination has been divided internationally by disagreements over the treatment of gay men and lesbians, and speculation of a full-fledged split has been growing.
"I don't think we've come to the point of schism," Akinola said. "We are not breaking away from anybody."
He acknowledged that there was a "broken relationship" between the Nigerian and British churches, but then added, "There is still room for a consolation, for repentance."
Akinola, speaking to journalists at the church headquarters in the Nigerian capital, denounced "liberal" Western ideas and those who favor an "anything goes" interpretation of the Bible. "They are the ones who are tearing apart the fabric of our Anglican family, not the Nigerians," he said.
The Nigerian church severed relations with the U.S. Episcopal Church after it accepted the local selection of an openly gay man, V. Eugene Robinson of New Hampshire, as a bishop in 2003. The Nigerians also broke relations with the Canadian Anglican Church after some dioceses blessed civil unions of gay couples.
The Church of England has neither accepted gays as bishops nor sanctioned same-sex civil unions, though the liberal archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has questioned the "insistence on a fantasy version of heterosexual marriage as the solitary ideal." A gay priest was appointed a bishop in the Church of England in 2003, but in the wake of protests, he declined the office at Williams's request.
More recently, in July, the Church of England announced that gay priests could remain in same-sex partnerships as long as they were celibate. Church leaders also said that gays could not be denied baptism, confirmation or communion on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Akinola said Thursday that he had received a letter from Williams saying that the Church of England had no intention of further inflaming the debate. But while saying he hoped to avoid a schism, Akinola warned that Nigerian officials were prepared to break with the Church of England should it embrace homosexuality.
"Why should England be spared?" he said. "There are no sacred cows."
In addition to leading Nigeria's Anglican Church, Akinola also is the nominal leader of all 40 million Anglicans in Africa, where homosexuality is illegal in most countries and widely viewed as an abomination. Worldwide, there are 77 million Anglicans.
Akinola has suggested that like-minded U.S. Episcopalians consider renouncing ties with their national church and organizing under the banner of the Nigerian Anglicans, with their more literal views on the Bible. The Nigerian church also has stopped sending its priests to the United States for training, Akinola said.