African prelate urges shift on sex by Episcopal Church His explosive demand urges understanding of Africa's different mores

June 23, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- An explosive document urging a new approach to some of the most divisive and sensitive issues of human sexuality will be presented to a major meeting of Anglican bishops next month, threatening the unity of an already deeply divided church.

Convening for their once-in-a-decade Lambeth Conference in England, 800 Anglican bishops from around the world will be asked to adopt a "way three" of viewing such issues as out-of-wedlock birth, the remarriage of divorcees, faithful homosexual relationships and polygamy.

The "way three" new approach is being proposed by an international panel of prelates headed by Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town, one of Africa's most influential churchmen. "Way three" encourages the world's 70 million Anglicans to show increased sympathy, understanding and cultural sensitivity to practices previously rowned on, if not condemned, by many Christians. The proposal will be bitterly opposed by orthodox Anglicans.

The conference sets theological guidelines for Anglican churches throughout the world, including the 2.5 million-member Episcopal Church in the United States. But its decisions are nonbinding.

In a church already troubled by differences among its conservative and liberal wings over such issues as the acceptance of homosexual relationships and the ordination of women, the controversial proposal will put the cohesion of the Anglican communion to a new test.

"It goes to the heart of the unity issue," said Auburn Traycik, editor of Christian Challenge, a conservative Anglican publication in Washington. "How do we maintain unity while allowing for some diversity?

"There is going to be great concern about these issues among the orthodox at Lambeth. It's a debate between those who believe in revealed truth, a certain core of teachings or doctrines that cannot be modified, and those who believe in continuing revelation, that what the Holy Spirit said a few centuries ago might be different today."

A counterproposal from a group of orthodox bishops calls for the reaffirmation of the Scriptures and biblical standards of sexuality. The group also wants a new covenant between the Anglican provinces to bind them closer together on doctrine.

"Failure to pass an orthodox resolution on sexuality at Lambeth '98 could lead to entrenchment of error and serious erosion of unity in the communion in the following 10 years," three archbishops and a presiding bishop warned in a letter to other bishops.

The archbishops were Harry Goodhew of Sydney, Australia; Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, and Moses Tay of South East Asia. They were joined by Presiding Bishop Maurice Sinclair of the Southern Cone of America.

Archbishop Kolini and a group of conservative bishops from the Great Lakes Region of Africa earlier this month passed a resolution endorsing the "orthodox interpretation regarding sanctity of Christian marriage and celibacy," and noted that: "The Holy Scriptures are clear in teaching all sexual deviations and promiscuity is sin." They specifically cited homosexual practice and out-of-wedlock heterosexual sex.

The Right Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, the Episcopal bishop of Maryland, who will be attending the Lambeth Conference, had not seen the "way three" document and could not comment on it.

Anxious to avoid major conflict, the conference organizers, working for the archbishop of Canterbury, are expected to seek the appointment of a study commission on how the church should handle the changing mores of human sexuality.

The real tensions, said Peter Toon, president of the orthodox Prayer Book Society, are likely to surface after the conference when the various provinces adopt their own policies.

"The conference can't lead to a division, a schism," said Toon. "That has to be created by the provinces and synods when the bishops go home."

The "way three" approach will be presented in the opening paper of the conference by Archbishop Ndungane. Entitled "Called to Full Humanity," the paper deals not only with human sexuality, but human rights, the environment, technology and euthanasia.

"There are so many things that have come up in our world that require us to apply our minds in terms of economic injustice, in terms of euthanasia, in terms of human sexuality," said Ndungane in a recent interview.

Ndungane, who was elevated to archbishop of Cape Town on the retirement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in September 1996, leads 2 million Anglicans in southern Africa and is perhaps the most influential religious figure in the region.

His paper urges understanding of sexual cultural differences, particularly between Ndungane's native Africa and the West.

"Bishops know that there are deep divisions within and between our different cultures on a number of issues -- divorce, cohabitation, marriage, polygamy and homosexuality," says the paper.

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