Notes from the Tangled Anglican Web

Anglican church above a slave dungeon in Ghana. Photo by Nomade Moderne.

The first Anglican church in West Africa is a small, one-story structure that was built above a dungeon for male slaves. Tours of Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle start below the church windows at the entrance to the dungeon; visitors climb down a steep, slippery rock face to enter the four dark rooms, where thousands of men were thrown on top of one another with no light and very little food. Once a day, some bread was tossed at them from a small internal window at the top of the wall. Upstairs, chaplains wrote letters to their bishops back in England, complaining that it was difficult to say vespers over the screams from under the floorboards. These early chaplains were not contesting the existence of the dungeon in the first place, just the location of the chapel. And indeed, when the church laid down firmer roots and needed a cathedral, they built it across the street.

I began working on the Anglican crisis over sex and gender as Assistant Director of Religion and Public Life at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Lopsided and sooty from the tour buses idling outside, this gargantuan Gothic cathedral is known as a vibrant center for the arts, culture, and civic engagement. Praised among even the most secular New Yorkers for its ecumenical breadth, its care for the city’s homeless and poor, and its anti-racist and anti-homophobic platforms, St. John the Divine is renowned for its dazzling liturgical and political events, like Paul Winter’s Solstice Celebration, or a traveling exhibit of the shoes of fallen American soldiers and their Iraqi victims.  Or the Blessing of the Animals on St. Francis Day, which opens with Native American drumming, and interweaves Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian prayers with songs set to the calls of whales and wolves, culminating in a solemn procession of eagles and reindeer, turtles, pigs, hedgehogs and snails. Were you to walk into St. John the Divine, you would pass a poet’s corner, a bay dedicated to the city’s slain firefighters, and a small altar consecrated on behalf of the victims of HIV/AIDS. On the south wall you’d see tapestries rescued from the fire that took out the whole north transept in December of 2001. And on the high altar you’d see seven lamps recalling John’s vision in Revelation, two twelve-foot replicas of the Menorah of Solomon’s Temple, and one enormous throne, upon which only seven people have had the honor of being seated: three Orthodox patriarchs, two Anglican primates, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, and the Most Reverend Peter J. Akinola, Archbishop, Primate, and Metropolitan of Nigeria.

For over ten years, Archbishop Akinola has been at the epicenter of the Anglican Communion’s “crisis” over sexuality and gender. Calling gay advocacy a “satanic attack” on the Church, he spearheaded Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, which rejects homosexuality as “incompatible with Scripture.” He opposes women’s ordination to the priesthood and episcopacy, rejects condom use even for married couples, and has been said to have suggested gay and lesbian people be drowned with millstones tied around their necks. For these reasons, when the sexually diverse congregation at St. John the Divine heard Akinola was to be seated on the International Throne in 2002, they reacted with consternation. To them, Akinola seemed the embodiment of divisiveness and intolerance. Why would anyone even invite him to such a heterodox and gender-confused place of worship, much less enthrone him there?

The Cathedral Dean, James Kowalski, the Bishop of New York Mark Sisk, and then-Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold all did their best to reassure their troubled patrons and parishioners. This was a way to actualize the “listening process” commended by Lambeth ’98, they argued. Through this act of radical hospitality, we would come to realize that our “different contexts” had given rise to our seeming incompatibilities, and we would see that the bonds of affection were stronger than the rancor over Resolution 1.10, which denied the legitimacy of same-sex unions, while condemning “irrational fear of homosexuals.” It was actually quite a generous, Christ-like plan, and it failed miserably. A year later, the openly gay Gene Robinson was consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire, and in response, Akinola declared himself unable to share the Eucharist with Frank Griswold. He intensified his efforts to consecrate American conservatives as “Nigerian” Bishops to oversee dissident American congregations, changed the name of his church, and took all references to the Archbishop of Canterbury out of Nigeria’s mission statement, telling The Guardian that it wasn’t clear the Church of England was an Anglican Church. Back at St. John the Divine, a gay man who had left the congregation over the Akinola affair came back for a rededication service in 2008, apologizing to the Dean for having been so hot-headed. “I was a jerk,” he said, “you were trying to do the right thing and I was only thinking about myself.”

“Nah,” the Dean consoled him, “you were right—he was using us to foster his ‘divide and conquer’ campaign.”

So things were bad in 2002, but there was still a hope everyone might find a way to get along. And it was in that strange space between Lambeth ‘98 and Robinson’s consecration, about a month after Akinola’s enthronement, that I happened upon Ifi Amadiume’s work on pre-colonial Igbo communities. In a book called Male Daughters, Female Husbands, Amadiume offers a searing critique of the binary sex and gender system that the British missionaries and colonizers imposed upon communities in modern-day Nigeria, tracing women’s tragic devolution from economic and spiritual leaders into subservient wives and Christian mothers.

Focusing on the small Igbo town of Nnobi, Amadiume locates pre-colonial power in the goddess Idemili, who possessed certain women in order to make them her ekwe, or human representatives. The women this goddess chose were the most economically successful in the community—those who were prominent in the marketplace. And the surest way for a woman to become prominent in the marketplace was to take a few wives. These wives would manage the house and care for the children while their “female husband” focused on economic and political life—and again, those women who succeeded often gained access to considerable religious authority as well, becoming spokeswomen of the goddess.

Unsurprisingly, the first thing the British did after they had made significant inroads into the region was to ban all worship of the goddess and to insist that all households be composed of one man, one woman, and their biological children. From that moment on, a priestess or female husband was out of a job. From one angle, then, what the Anglican world is witnessing is not the imposition of some “primitive” mindset upon a “modern” Anglo-American Church, but rather, a redeployment of the modern code of gender and church hierarchy imposed upon West and East Africans at the turn of the century. As former Bishop of Massachusetts Barbara Harris told her perplexed diocese in the wake of Lambeth ’98, the most vocal anti-gay bishops of the Global South have adopted a Victorian gender structure “that not only had been handed to their forbears, but had been used to suppress them.”

Another angle emerges from the analyses that reporters and scholars like Jim Naughton, Stephen Bates and Miranda Hassett have undertaken of the complicated alliances between conservative Americans and the bishops of the developing world. As Hassett puts it, Episcopal conservatives lost the battle on their own turf, so they began to look for support elsewhere, trading their financial capital for the Global South’s spiritual capital. Both of these perspectives are crucial to understanding what is going on in the global Communion. Unfortunately, taken alone, they leave us with the impression that everything ultimately comes from Western Europe and North America. If we assert that the bishops of the South are fighting someone else’s battle—that they are defending a gospel that came from the North against a new sexual ethic that’s also coming from the North, by means of a Northern-style homophobia enforced with Northern cash—then it begins to look as though nothing is really African, or Asian, or South American at all.

Resistance to this totalizing Western incursion has produced what postcolonial queer theorist Neville Hoad has called a Christian “heteronationalism” among the most conservative primates of the Global South. The concern over homosexuality can be said to be authentically Nigerian, Ugandan, Kenyan, or Rwandan precisely because homosexuality itself is said not to be Nigerian, Ugandan, Kenyan, or Rwandan. Western decadence is threatening these nations on every plane, and the spiritual-sexual register is the most dangerous one of all. As Akinola rather hauntingly puts it, “In our human existence in this world, there was a time Africans were slaves, but we came out of it. But what again followed? Political slavery, under colonial administration. Somehow, we came out of it,” Akinola told Nigeria’s Guardian. “Then economic slavery: World Bank, IMF would tell you what to do with your money and your own resources. Now it is spiritual slavery, and we have to resist this. They had us as human slaves, political slaves, and economic slaves. They want to come for spiritual slaves. Now we won’t accept it.”

What is worse, in Akinola’s view, the virus of homosexuality leaves the fragile nation more susceptible to the ever-threatening Muslim incursion. Any concession to what Akinola calls the “cancer” of Western sexual ethics will allow another infection—Islam—to move opportunistically into the compromised body of African Christianity. Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Akinola’s replacement-in-training, has made this connection explicit in a recent sermon he gave in England: the two problems facing the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) are gay activism in the church and “the strong and steady Islamic advance” in the nation. But how are these two threats related?

In a piece entitled “Why I Object to Homosexuality,” Akinola writes that “the practice of homosexuality, in our understanding of Scripture, is the enthronement of self-will and human weakness.” This weakness refers to the homosexual’s purported enslavement to his own desires: what Augustine would call the “standards of God” to the “standards of man,” or what Paul would call the “law of God” to “the law of my members.” To be ruled by one’s own desires is to have succumbed to weakness in the first place. If we add to this a fear of the “passive” position in some of the sex that men have with men, we will arrive at a fairly solid understanding of what Akinola means when he calls homosexuality an “enthronement of human weakness.”

Akinola used this word again in 2006, in reference to the violence over the infamous anti-Muslim Danish cartoons: “From all indications, it is very clear now that the sacrifices of the Christians in this country for peaceful co-existence with people of other faiths has been sadly misunderstood to be weakness.” What seems to connect the threat of homosexuality to the threat of Islam, then, is a crisis of Christian masculinity. It is not clear which came first—anxiety over virulent Western homosexuals or anxiety over violent African Muslims, but the two threats seem to echo and intensify one another.

The House of Bishops and Deputies of the Episcopal Church maintains a Listserv on which I am a “kibitzer,” which means I have reading, but not posting, privileges. One day about two years ago, a lay deputy posted a message accusing Bishop Gene Robinson’s liberal defendants of not caring about the Global South. What liberal Episcopalians didn’t seem to realize, he argued, was that Anglicans in Nigeria were under constant threat of obliteration at the hands of angry Muslims to the north, and couldn’t hope to be taken seriously with a gay bishop in New Hampshire. He ended his intervention with what was meant to be a rhetorical question: “Do you really think gay bishops are the answer to militant mullahs?” He meant that a gay bishop has no moral authority, so he compromises the moral authority of everyone who is associated with him. But he also implied that gay bishops are not strong enough to stand up to militant Muslims. Gay men are, as Akinola himself has suggested, too weak, which is to say too woman-like, to defend the church, and so once again, we see an acute anxiety over masculinity.

These are the seeds of the peculiar Anglican heteronationalism we are now witnessing: a resistance to Westernization mobilized by means of Christianity. According to Archbishop Akinola, “Africa” will fight the Western disease of homosexuality because homosexuality is “un-African, un-Christian, inhuman.” Yet, one might ask, is it not puzzling to pit Africanness and Christianity against “Western” homosexuality, inasmuch as “Africanness” and the Gospel are themselves “Western” formations? Is this not especially true in the case of Anglicanism, which in many of the nations at the center of this debate, is the church of the colonizers? Famously, when the nation now known as Ghana won its independence from England in 1957, Kwame Nkrumah commended a return to indigenous religious traditions. Realizing how deeply entrenched Christianity had become, he told his people they could be Christian if they had to, just not Anglican. Anything but Anglican, and yet here we are seeing African leaders marshaling anti-colonial resistance by means of—of all things, Anglicanism? How is this possible?

It is possible by virtue of a strategic distinction between “message” and “medium.” The medium by which the Gospel came to Africa is the British colonial infrastructure. It has been, and in its new American guises must continually be, overthrown. But the message that the medium encased—the Gospel itself—is not British or American, or even Roman or Palestinian; it is universal. So the trick is to purify the Gospel from its cultural accretions so that it can serve as a transcendent critique of the culture that now threatens to destroy it.

The question that divides the Anglican leaders of the Global South is, How do we go about accessing the non-Western essence of the Gospel? For Orombi, Akinola, and the rising Archbishop of Nigeria Nicholas Okoh, purifying the Gospel of its Western influence is simple: all we have to do is to look at Scripture itself. The “tradition” and “reason” through which Western Anglicans typically read Scripture are cultural accretions: “Scripture-alone” gets at the uncolonized essence of Christianity. For Njonkonkulu Ndungane, former Archbishop of Southern Africa, the opposite is true the insistence upon Scriptural “purity” is the Western innovation. It is Calvinism—in particular, an American-style Calvinism—that has allowed bishops from Fort Worth and Uganda to agree on the interpretation of Scripture—not some shared, a-cultural access to the Gospel itself. There is no a-cultural access to the Gospel itself. So the only way to de-Westernize the Gospel, Ndungane argues, is to use African culture and tradition to interpret the Bible—that is, to Africanize the old Anglican Three-Legged Stool.

The problem remains that even if leaders as different as Akinola and Ndungane were to agree that all access to Scripture is traditionally mediated, they would disagree over what constitutes “African Tradition.” Is it the heterosexual family values that Akinola brandishes against the Muslim incursion? Or the discourse of human rights that has emerged from South Africa’s history of apartheid? Is “African Tradition” the sexual conservatism born out of the Rwandan genocide? Or the ideological liberalism born out of the Burundian genocide? Or is it the sexual libertarianism of a reconstructed pre-colonial past? That world of male daughters and female husbands that Amadiume insists was not “homosexual,” but to which gay and lesbian activists in Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe nonetheless appeal in order to show they have always been there? Before the Christians, before even the Muslims, as Nigerian activist Davis Mac-Iyalla argues, there were men who slept with men, women who slept with women, women who lived as men, men who became women. Is this the African tradition through which Scripture should be read, perhaps with strategic emphasis upon the eunuchs who inherit the kingdom, or the asexuality of all Christians in Christ?


In 2005, I traveled to Ghana, to interview local bishops about their concerns, which I expected to include debt relief, infrastructure, water, poverty, deforestation, and fair trade. But those were not the problems they named. “Our biggest concern in Ghana,” the Bishop of Kumasi and Primate of West Africa told me, “is to be a witness for Scriptural ethics by opposing the consecration of any gay bishop, make no mistake about this.” He continued, “All of Africa is of one mind here. There can be no compromise with anyone who thinks this disgusting lifestyle is in any way acceptable to God.” Of course, he added, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and education were enormously important. But the problem was, the Anglican Church in Ghana could not do its work in the world properly because it had been “humiliated” by its affiliation with the Episcopal Church. People were laughing at them, he said, asking what sort of church could allow such a thing to happen. He was being mocked; his church was being ridiculed; his children were being taunted by their Catholic and Methodist friends because of their transcontinental association with “the gay church.”

During my time in Ghana, I began to understand what the Archbishop meant. Cab drivers, waiters, university students, and men on the side of the road would all ask what I was doing there. When I answered, “I’m here to study the Anglican Church in Ghana,” their voices would drop and they would say, almost without exception, something like, “The Anglican Church is such a beautiful tradition. It’s too bad about those gays.” One missionary I met at the Cathedral in Accra, a Jamaican-Tanzanian-Texan-New Yorker with a Ph.D. in public health, told me, as I helped her tack up a display about the Millennium Development Goals, that when she tells people she’s a missionary from the Episcopal Church, they invariably say something like, “Ha, Episcopal Church—we should be missionizing you.” And then there was the provincial secretary, who showed me around the building site of a new office, conference center, and guesthouse—the extent of which was piles of overturned dirt and some stakes in the ground. “We were so excited about this project,” the secretary told me, “but now there’s no money for it because of homosexuality.”

Finally, there was my trip to Cape Coast Castle. This Dutch and then British fortress was built on a hill overlooking the shore, in order to centralize trade in and out of West Africa and to keep the other European powers at bay. It still has the moat, the drawbridge, the canons pointed at the sea, fastidious triangular stacks of cannonballs nearby, and it still has the dungeons. Men and women taken or sold from the interior were held in these underground caverns for six or eight weeks before they were crammed into slave ships. The place has an ungodly smell, the memory of which, I fear, will never leave me. Apparently, when archaeologists went to excavate the site in the seventies, they had to clear out a foot and a half of human excrement just to find the floor.

Faced with the horrific insanity of Cape Coast, it is frankly a wonder that anybody is an Anglican at all. And I say this as someone who, in her own tortured way, loves the Church, and who owes much of what she has become to it. What is astonishing is that something—not just something about the Gospel, but something about this particular way of living into it—promises freedom even from the conditions of its own propagation, even from the untrammeled evil that instantiated it, and the hatred of racial and sexual difference that has so often sustained it. To be honest, I’d be troubled if everybody did agree on how such an impossible freedom might be possible.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wesleyan
University, where she teaches in the areas of philosophy of religion and
modern Christian thought. She is the author of Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe (Columbia University Press, 2009). From 2005-6, she was Scholar in Residence at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.