More than a century ago, Western missionaries began streaming into Africa looking for souls in need of salvation. Now, conservative American priests say it's their church that needs saving.
On Thursday, two U.S. priests were consecrated as Anglican bishops in Kenya, the latest in a string of priests who are defecting to African congregations because of the American church's liberal stance on gays.
"The West used to send missionaries to Africa and the third world," said Kenyan Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi as he consecrated Bill Atwood and William Murdoch. "But now the third world is sending its missionaries to the West."
Atwood and Murdoch left the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, because it allows the ordination of gay priests. As Kenyan bishops, the men will return to their homes _ Atwood to Texas and Murdoch to Massachusetts _ to minister to 32 congregations under Nzimbi's jurisdiction.
The issue has heightened significance for Murdoch, whose brother is a gay priest in Massachusetts. After his consecration Thursday, Murdoch said: "My brother and I love each other and we always will .... The difference of opinion we have regarding this issue will not distract us."
The spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, had asked African archbishops not to consecrate U.S. priests to help avoid a schism. Nzimbi said there had been no direct communication with Williams over Thursday's ceremony.
Williams has no direct authority to force a compromise because each Anglican province is self-governing.
The Anglican Communion has moved toward the brink of splitting since the Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003. Most of the fellowship's 77 million members are based in the developing world, where homosexuality is strongly discouraged and often illegal.
Africa, home to half the world's Anglicans, is dominated by conservative leaders.
"Homosexual practices violate the order of life given by God in Holy Scripture," said Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies, one of 10 Anglican leaders or their representatives who attended the consecration ceremony at Nairobi's All Saints Cathedral. There are 38 Anglican leaders, or primates, worldwide.
During Thursday's ceremony, Atwood said accepting homosexuality is "a cruel falsehood."
"The very core message of the Christian church is being abandoned," he added.
Rosalind Hackett, professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, said the dispute was part of a wider shift in Christianity, with African churches increasingly confident in challenging Western interpretations of theology.
"They feel they have the right and capability to determine the agenda," Hackett told The Associated Press. "The 21st century is Africa's moment."
A split would hit the communion financially because the small but wealthy Episcopal Church, which has 2.4 million members, provides a significant chunk of the fellowship's budget. Next month, Episcopal bishops will discuss demands that they pledge by Sept. 30 not to consecrate another openly gay bishop. If the bishops refuse, the church could lose its full membership in the communion.
Both sides of the argument say the issue goes deeper than simple acceptance of homosexuality. Liberal Anglicans say the Bible's message of tolerance means there should be a place for everyone in church, but conservatives say that is bending the word of God to fit fashion.
Six other U.S. priests have been consecrated as bishops in the Rwandan church and another in Nigeria. One more American priest will be consecrated in Uganda on Sunday, where a radio journalist was suspended on Thursday after he aired an interview with a lesbian guest.
Davis Mac-Iyalla, who heads Nigeria-based Changing Attitudes, an organization of gay Anglicans, said arguments were being used to mask political struggles within the church. African archbishops "are being used by Western conservatives because they want to control the church," he said.
Not all African Anglicans are opposed to homosexuality, Mac-Iyalla added.
"My Scripture has not condemned me," he insisted. "Jesus came and died for everybody."
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