Safe Harbor Offered to Conservatives

by Mindy Belz

Editor's note: With signs abounding that the Episcopalian Church in the U.S. is splintering over the official attitude of welcoming practicing homosexuals as church leaders, World editor Mindy Belz concludes in this installment her assessment of the "African connection" to which dissident congregations are turning for oversight.

If the labors for the worldwide church are pressing, African Archbishops Peter Akinola and Henry Orombi face burdens of ministry at home both ponderous and persistent. Orombi describes them in terms of a recent trip to northern Uganda, which has suffered under nearly 20 years of attacks from the vagrant Lord's Resistance Army. Fighting ended under a temporary agreement signed last August, but over half a million people live in camps for the displaced. When Orombi arrived at one village in October, a mother rushed to ask him to baptize her newborn twins. At the same moment, as he looked ahead, he could see several huts had caught fire and the blazes were spreading. "We have blessings and cursings together all the time," he said, "and we take them both as from the Lord."

Orombi learned on the eve of the trip that his sister had died, but he followed through on the ten-day program anyway: "People sympathized with me, but they had been preparing for months for this trip. The north is going through a very hard time and it is important for me to go and identify with them, to bring a message of hope in the place of struggle. But the most important thing is that not to go would give the devil a chance."

Orombi did not go to high school because he wanted to be a mechanic. "I didn't make it," he says simply of the apprenticeship, and his father insisted on enrolling him in a teacher's college. There, he says, he met Christ, "and that changed the whole perspective of the future," opening up a lifelong love for children and youth ministry and for becoming an ordained clergyman. He studied theology at a seminary outside Kampala and for three years in London.

By 1993 church leaders named him the first bishop of a new diocese in southwestern Uganda. A decade after beginning with almost nothing, Orombi had a church infrastructure in place there that included schools, training centers, a new airstrip for missionary drop-offs, and rural and community outreach that attracted Anglican workers from South Korea, England, Scotland, and Germany. "I did it by preaching the gospel fiercely," he said. A year later he became archbishop.

At a New York dinner or at home in the bush, the archbishop, at 6-foot-5, is a commanding presence not only for his stature but also for his baritone laugh and aggressive sociability. On Thursday evenings he teaches an evening Bible study at All Saints Cathedral in Kampala where 200 people regularly attend. Some say they walk more than five miles home afterward.

Orombi begins by opening a Bible well-inked in orange highlighter and saying, "God is good," to which the congregation immediately responds, "all the time." He takes them through ten points about leadership using Mark 4 as text, punctuating the serious with the humorous. At one point he quotes an African proverb in relationship to his own leadership: "The higher the monkey climbs the more his nakedness shows."

When the service is over, Orombi stays nearly an hour to greet attendees, setting up meetings with some who want to discuss family problems or jobs. "I love people. I love to talk to people, I love to ask questions. I love to look at people's gifts and try to copy as much as I can. I've come to learn that until you learn to go to a practical level and interact with people, you can't appreciate them," the 57-year-old archbishop said.

Akinola, nearly a foot shorter than Orombi and, at 66, almost a decade older, brings the characteristic Nigerian intensity to conversation, an abrupt candor that doesn't obscure a sharp wit. With a series of deadly air crashes, Akinola declared flying in Nigeria (something he does nearly every week) "a journey to the grave."

Akinola appears formal in conversation but is fond of showing up in what Nigerians call "civilian mufti"-street clothes minus the archbishop's traditional raspberry shirt and sometimes the cleric's collar. African papers refer to him as "the most powerful man in Anglicanism" but others, like one newspaper in Australia, brand him "a fundamentalist bigot." He speaks forcefully but acts cautiously: He rarely grants interviews, friends say, and makes it a rule not to publicize his travel schedule.

Akinola had to leave school after his primary education. He took up carpentry to support his family and ran a successful business before returning to school under church guidance. He was ordained an Anglican deacon in 1978, a priest in 1979, and attended Virginia Theological Seminary, where he received a master's in theology in 1981. He became an archbishop in 1997 and primate of all Nigeria in 2000 when the country came under one province. Like Orombi, Akinola "founded" a diocese in Abuja, which became surprisingly self-reliant using business investments to fund twelve primary and two secondary schools. Akinola has worked in both the predominantly Christian south and the largely Muslim north. In the south, Anglicans often have been at odds with Roman Catholics; in the north, Islam and Christianity have been at war with one another.

When northern states began adopting Shariah law, Akinola called on the government to suspend oil receipts and supplies. "Time has come to call the Shariah governors to throw Shariah off our land. The governors were elected by Nigerians of all persuasions, not just by Muslims alone but for our common good," he said.

Last February when Muslims rioted over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad, Nigeria was hit hardest: In the north, rioters killed more than 120 Christians, burned about 40 churches, and destroyed hundreds of shops and houses. Reprisals by Christians in southeast Nigeria killed about 100 Muslims and left perhaps thousands homeless. Akinola says the controversy ended discussions about dialogue between Christians and Muslims. "We have had the assumption that Islam is a religion of peace, and I ask myself: From what you see on the ground happening, how can you not see that Islam is not making peace? That understanding-it is frightening."

Akinola says he now tells those under his care to be cautious, "to watch what you say and where you go." But he draws a parallel to the conflict with the Western church: "I have Muslim friends, and we know the boundaries of our friendship. I have Roman Catholic friends, and we know the boundaries of our friendship. We must accept our boundaries in the Anglican Communion. Unity at the expense of the truth is not faith."

In appointing Truro Church's Minns, Akinola said he plans "not to challenge or intervene in the churches of (North America) but rather to provide safe harbor for those who can no longer find their spiritual home in those churches." Minns himself finds precedent. London sent clergy to America in colonial times, and now Africa is doing the same: "We are a church that needs help."

Orombi says he looks forward to key Anglican meetings, such as the February assemblage of worldwide Anglican leaders in Tanzania, even though they are likely to turn into showdowns. "Many of us in the global south want this whole sexuality thing to be thrown out, to be finished," he said. "It is exhausting and debilitating." It is also painful. "If your brother decides he is not going to move, you are sad and pained and you are walking away. Not because you love it. You are walking away painfully, bleeding."

Mindy Belz is the editor of World magazine.

Used by permission. © 2006 World magazine, all rights reserved.

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