How Christians love one another
The origins of the Anglican schism
This is the first part of an account of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, originally written the month after it ended and comprehensively remixed twenty four years late. The second part is here.
If you have no interest in the Anglican schism, well, you have been warned. The whole thing is also quite long, around 10,000 words. But if that doesn’t put you off, enjoy.
It was a sunny day for a schism and the television cameras were present too: Emmanuel Chukwama was trying to exorcise a gay man outside the sports hall of the University of Kent. He was the bishop of Enugu, in Northern Nigeria; the object of his efforts was Richard Kirker, a small, neat white man who had been thrown out of theological college for his elaborate displays of grief after his boyfriend, another trainee priest, died in a motorcycle accident. In the fifteen years since then, he had devoted himself to promoting the cause of openly gay clergy.
The bishop held his bible in front of his chest. The black covers flopped down as he pushed stubby fingers across the page he’d marked.
"God himself has condemned homosexuality in the Scriptures; and the scriptures is the base for the faith of Christians. So if you are a Christian, why not go to what does the Scripture say about gay" — he mashed out the vowel of the word like a savoury curse — "and about homosexuality?"
"This issue was in the early church before and it was addressed in First Corinthian chapter six, verses 9-10.
"Romans chapter one, verse 27 says even those who support homosexuals and those who are involved in it — in lustful carnality of man with man — will be punished!"
A ring of spectators gathered round the contenders. This was the kind of theology that journalists could make something of. A television crew pushed their to the front and both men raised their voices to be heard more clearly by the reporters at the back.
"Look at the Old Testament! There in Leviticus it says those boys should be stoned to death. And also — Genesis, chapter two —"
"Would you be prepared to stone us to death?" interrupted Kirker . It didn’t sound a wholly rhetorical question. Bishop Chukwama paused
"Would you be prepared to stone us to death?" Kirker asked again.
The Bishop shouted on: "Because of the grace of Christ, you would be counselled; you would be prayed for."
His manner left no doubt that the justice of God demanded stoning, even if His mercy prescribed no more than exorcism:
" … and you would be delivered out of your homosexuality. And now I’m going to lay my hands on you and deliver you to become a total and dedicated Christian.
He reached forward to touch Kirker’s sandy, neatly bristled hair. "I lay my hands on you in the name of the Lord! Father., in the name of Jesus, I lay my hand on him!"
His wife stood at his side, paler, shorter, with her hair in long braids. She began a steady melodic chant of alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, which continued for a while underneath the hoarser shouting of the contending men.
"Father, I tell you in the name of JESUS, deliver him"
Kirker tried pushing his hand away. The Bishop pressed it down and shouted louder.
"I can deliver you! God wants to deliver you! in the name of JESUS! Father, I pray that you deliver him from homosexuality in the name of JESUS! Father, I deliver him out of homosexuality, out of _gay_,! That he become a _Christian!_ A genuine _Christian!_ a devoted _Christian_! In the name of Jesus! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia"
His wife panted along with him, "alleluia alleluia". There was something deeply sexual about this exorcism: the effort, the ecstasy, the concentration. The bishop was sweating fiercely. He had the Pentecostal way of crying JESUS! which turns the word into the invocation of a deity, a great breath-emptying shout with equal weight on both halves and the jaw falling like a trap door at the end so that the last syllable is not swallowed and slurred politely but delivered with a shout to rhyme with "bus".
But this was Pentecostalism without the props. There was no organ making whooshy space noises to imitate the action of the Holy Spirit. There was no darkness from which the audience could gaze at a lit stage. There was no one present who was patient, poor or humble, waiting for a miracle.
Instead, there was a tall handsome blond from a television company who kept trying to get a story he could understand. He pushed his microphone between the two men and asked "Gentlemen, do you think there is any room for compromise on this issue?"
The gentlemen ignored him completely. As the exorcism fizzled out Kirker began his counterattack. First he confessed to a failed heterosexual relationship. "I want Jesus to change you!" cried the Bishop. "You said you tried to be — to marry. You couldn’t sustain it. Why don’t you try again?"
Then Kirker announced that he had been born and grown up in Nigeria, quite close to Enugu. For a flicker of a moment there seemed to be some possibility of human contact. The Bishop stopped looking at him as if he were a bird-headed demon, fouling the ground he stood on and at that moment Kirker pecked. "And I had my first sexual experience with a Nigerian boy!"
The bishop shouted as if he had been struck in the eye. "No!". Kirker put his head on one side and pecked again. "That proves it is nonsense to say there is no homosexuality in Africa."
Shouting like Samson in agony., the Bishop cried "You brought it with you!" — and the ring of journalists collapsed in laughter.
"I am an African. I don’t believe in this stuff." Chukwama shouted and stalked off.
Hours later, the spectators were still laughing at the memory.
That evening Chukwama and Kirker were taken to London in separate limousines to repeat their performances in the television studios. Here at least was religion as the world could understand it.
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The Lambeth Conference which brought them together was, notionally, a gathering of the third-largest Christian denomination in the world. It is held every ten years, and for the thirteenth of these jamborees, Dr Carey, had invited every Anglican bishop he could find, 800 in all, along with 600 bishops’ wives and five bishops’ husbands. He is a man who has no doubt of the importance of his role. "I want to put it to you that the World-wide Anglican Communion — which numbers over 70 million people and is growing fast — has very great potential as a player on the international scene" he told the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1995.
Since then, the churchgoing population of England had continued to shrink, as it had done for the preceding 20 years. One of Dr Carey’s first acts on coming to office in 1990 had been to proclaim a "Decade of Evangelism", in which the Church would stop trying merely to defend its crumbling positions in society and move out aggressively to make new converts. In the decade so far, the number of regular church attenders has dropped by about 25%. We don’t know the exact figure because the General Synod , as part of Carey’s professionalisation of the Church’s image, refuses to publish its statistics, convinced that they must be misleading because they are so dreadful: the natural suspicion is that regular Sunday attendance has finally dropped below the magic figure of one million. This is not a purely Anglican problem, but one which affects every church that mattered fifty years ago. The Roman Catholics have lost even more members, and the Methodists are so reduced that they are once more considering a merger with the Church of England.
Despite this, the official information of the Anglican Communion still claims that there are 26m members of the Church of England in England. this ignores the fact that about 25m of these were carried out of church dripping and screaming, after their christenings, and have never been back since.
It seems less incredible that there are 17m Anglicans in Nigeria, or 8m in Uganda. No doubt these figures are inflated but they’re unlikely to be more than double the reality..
If you were to plot where Christians are today on a map, the effect would be something like the island of Santorini., where once Atlantis stood: there is a crescent shape around a hollow centre. There are millions of Christians in Korea, China, India, Pakistan, and all through sub-Saharan Africa, in South America. and the former Russian Empire. In the USA the situation is more complicated, but it is still unthinkable than a declared atheist or agnostic should be elected president. Only in the part of Europe that had once been Christendom, has the faith largely disappeared.. Here, where Christianity produced some of the most wonderful things that human beings have ever done, it has dwindled into folklore. Writing an article about the resurrection, one Good Friday some years back, I was asked by the then features editor of the Independent to explain high up what the resurrection was, so that the readers would know what the peg for the piece was.
Looking back on this piece, twenty years after I wrote the first version, I think once more that this loss of understanding and experience is a tragedy. That was also how I felt when I wrote about religion as a full time job, roughly from 1986 to 1996, with a couple of years off for good behaviour. But after Lambeth in 1998 I determined that no one should mistake me for a Christian myself.
At the previous Lambeth Conference, in 1988, I had a moment when I almost became a professing Christian. It was a eucharist in the Cathedral: the high windows glowed as if the glass were turned to emeralds and pale rubies. Within, the candlelight, the white stoles and the golden embroidery all refulged; and it seemed, as I watched the stately gestures at the altar, that the light that filled the cathedral was coming from inside, from the sun-like disk of pale bread that the Archbishop Runcie held up. "On the night that he was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it and gave it to his disciples, saying “take, eat, this is my body which is given for you: do this in remembrance of me."
Borne up by the ancient rhythm of the words, Runcie seemed at that moment as if he could dance with the world lifted, shining, in his hands. I felt a terrible ache to come into that circle of light from where I waited in the cool stony shadows with a notebook in my hand. I didn’t believe: but the sacrifice of Jesus was in that moment as plain and tangible as the massive cathedral around us. It was noble as well as beautiful that a man should die like that and leave to his friends a command to turn the memory of torture into love. I wanted to be a part of that. Belief would have been an impertinence.
But I stayed where I was. I knew the rules; and they said you had to be confirmed to take communion. Still, the moment gave me sympathy, something I wanted far more than belief. Just as a hunter must enter a kind of communion with his prey, if he is to see the world that matters to it, so must a write see the world through the eyes of the people he writes about, as much as through the readers’. I had known that Christians could be loveable and admirable — I was then married to one — but I had never till that moment seen what they loved and admired; and for years afterwards, I felt as if I shared a secret even with the crowd of jostling shits and placemen on the synod floor. These people too had seen beauty cracking into the world like a shaft of light, and had heard a voice saying to them "Come up and love: the world is suffused with goodness."
Runcie retired two years after that service. He was the last Archbishop, I think, to whom the establishment of the Church of England was an important reality, partly because he had begun life so far outside it. His mother was a ship’s hairdresser, the trade which Evelyn Waugh used to brand the irredeemable lower class awfulness of Trimmer in the Sword of Honour trilogy; his father was an engineer, a profession beneath the notice of the upper classes, who was blinded in an accident when Robert was only 14. This gave his faith a remarkable realism.
His brains and application got him into Oxford. His skill at cricket there got him accepted as a temporary gentleman while an undergraduate and so into a Guards tank regiment; his courage and resourcefulness in battle, where he won an MC in the fighting after D Day, made him an equal of regimental comrades like Willie Whitelaw.
The institution that he came to lead still had the memory of the times when the Church of England was at the heart of the definition of Englishness. At her coronation, Queen Elizabeth promised that she would "To the utmost of \[her\] power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law … maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof , as by law established in England … And … preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them"
It is harder and harder to believe that this ceremony performs the sacralisation of power and of Englishness as it has done for nearly 1500 years. It looks more and more like the mutual despairing affirmation of two institutions drifting away to the margins of power1.
After he had retired he took an innocent pleasure in gossipy lunches at a hotel outside St Albans which was also patronised by England footballers. The waiters called him “Lord Runcie”, but when he observed the struggles of his successor. George Carey, he said to me “The great thing is never to believe your own propaganda.”
That remark would have bewildered Carey, as so much else did. Although his background was almost as disestablished as Runcie’s — a council house and a secondary modern in Dagenham — had had not been socialised into the imperial class by Oxford, and the war. Dons of the sort who had run the church for centuries were snobbish about him — so was I — and he resented it intensely. But the fact remains that he lacked the political skill and perhaps the network, too, to transform the church as he thought was necessary. He tried to remodel it as an organisation, something that could be managed. But the Church of England does not work like that it — or like anything else. The people who pay for it have no power to make decisions; the people who make decisions have no power to carry them out.
But for three weeks every ten years the Archbishop of Canterbury became a player towering over the world stage, at least within the campus of the University of Kent. And if the whole time had been given over to silent prayer the illusion might have remained. But the bishops had not come for silent prayer. They were here to preach, and then to vote, even no one was obliged to listen, or to be directed by the votes. The central make believe of the conference had nothing to do with God’s existence or action. It was about worldly power and prestige.
Part of the problem was obvious. Once the constituent churches became self-governing, they had no need to align themselves with the Church of England in any doctrinal way. There was also a less obvious dimension, which was that the Church of England itself was held together ultimately by armed force quite as much as the British Empire had been. The Church as we knew it, and as it had known itself, was the outcome of the seventeenth century Civil War, which was fought on profoundly theological lines. The 1662 prayer book, which would be part of any definition of Englishness for three hundred years, can be read for its unforgiving beauty, but also as the text of a peace treaty. It set out what might be believed, or asserted, by both sides in the civil war.
If you wanted a living, or hoped for a bishopric, it was necessary to assent to the studied ambiguity of the prayer book; those who could not assent — the dissenters — were cut out not only from the established church with its networks of patronage and power, from full political participation in the country’s life.
Yet by the nineteenth century, the two sides in the civil war coexisted within the frame of the prayer book, each convinced the others were heretics polluting the true faith. The Anglo-Catholic clergy could be jailed — and sometimes were — for “ritualistic” practices thought too close to Catholicism. And each side in that struggle had their own missionary societies. Who got to which colony first would determine the character of the Anglican church there. That is much of the reason the Church of South Africa is politically left wing, Catholic in flavour, and celebrates gay marriage, while the Churches of Nigeria and Rwanda, founded by evangelical missionaries, are authoritarian, scriptural, and hope to extirpate homosexuality altogether.
How could Kirker and Chukwama possibly both be worshipping the same God?
Their dispute was much bigger than sex. In the end, it was about truth, authority, and the action of God in the world. What possible action might God have in the world? There is a joke that illustrates this question beautifully: a foreign correspondent moves to Jerusalem and is placed in an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall. Every morning he sees an old man come to the wall, place a few slips of paper in it and pray for an hour; every afternoon the man returns and does the same. Finally, after three weeks, the journalist, sniffing a story, approaches the old man as he leaves the wall. What are you praying for? “World peace, an end to hunger, and justice for everyone”, he replies. He doesn’t look insane, so the journalist presses on. “How long have you been doing this for?”
“Twenty five years, and I haven’t missed a day. I come every morning for an hour and every afternoon for another hour to pray.”
The journalist considers this. “Looking around the world”, he says, “there doesn’t seem to be much result from your prayers: can you really be sure that God is listening?”
“I know what you mean”, says the old man: “some days it’s like talking to a wall.”
The central feature of prayer in the North is that it’s like talking to a wall. You don’t expect a reply2. In the South, they hear echoes even when no one has spoken.
Churches were the scene of some of the worst massacres in Rwanda. The only time I have ever seen Dr Carey seem less than certain of his opinions was when he came back from a visit to Rwanda. With his wife, he had visited a former Catholic church where the bodies of 5000 people hacked to death had been left unburied as a memorial. "Christianity can only have been skin deep here" he said.
Prudence Ngarambe is one of the four bishops appointed in 1995 to replace men accused of complicity in the genocide who were sheltering in exile. The first time he went to the West it was to the Dallas conference organised in 1997 to mobilise and drill the southern forces. Though Lambeth was only his second visit to the West he already knew what our societies needed. It was Biblical morality. "We are not the ones who are active in homosexuality. It is the concern of the whole conference." He said.
"Because we are preoccupied without our own problems, we cannot shy off from international problems. We are not isolated from what is happening around."
I was having a little difficulty in this conversation, because I could not see any immediate moral equivalence between homosexuality and genocide. I wonder would a German bishop in, say 1947, have been quite so ready to dispense moral advice halfway round the world. It seemed to me that a Rwandan bishop could hardly have any moral indignation left over for the rest of the world.
I was completely wrong.
Nothing brought home more clearly the extent to which homosexuals were the chosen scapegoats of the South than the attempted secession of a parish in Little Rock, Arkansas. They tried to leave the diocese of Arkansas because the bishop there was pro-gay, and put themselves under the protection of John Rucyahane, another Rwandan bishop, who had served ten years in America (which preserved him from any taint of complicity in the genocide.) And this was Little Rock, a town so profoundly racist that in 1962 the National Guard had been called out to desegregate the schools.
Bishop Ngarambe started out conversation in the lobby of the business school, where the press were supposed to stay. Low, plain sofas surrounded coffee tables. In one corner a huge television relayed soundlessly the debates from the sports hall where the conference was meeting. His manner was catechetical, bureaucratic. He spoke with headings and subheadings all in place, advancing his argument in overlapping phrases like chain stitch; and as the stitches of argument advanced it became clear where he thought the blame for the massacres lay.
"The church has embarked on conciliation. When we talk of conciliation here we are talking about actually educating thousands of people: educating people to understand that what happened was because leaders manipulated people’s ignorance. We are trying to get things right by showing people that ethnically we have equal share in the life of the country. Education should be for all without discrimination. No region should be superior to any other. All provinces should be the same."
This, he said, was work for the future. From the past there were other problems: "Many people have been traumatised. We have widows, orphans, and men who are traumatised, but it seems men conceal their trauma. Women and children tend to show it up. So we have started a program training the trauma counsellors.
"We have people who have lost almost everyone in their families, and they maybe feel that God has forsaken them so we are trying to bring God into their lives for them. We are asking why did God spare you? He spared you for a purpose. Counselling such people is not easy. It is not something you can do overnight."
Listening to his careful bureaucratic prose, I began to see the potential for a banality of the good. But to impose that sort of order on the world, you need a rule book. I began to see also the way in which the Bible might serve as a yardstick, reducing the unimaginable tasks of reconstruction to manageable lengths.
Against this yardstick, even evil could be reduced to a force external to Christians. "We bring God into their lives for them and tell them that’s where you understand the source of evil.
"The source of evil:" he repeated, as a sub-heading, "that’s when you get back to the creation story. God created the man and gave him choice between good and evil: in the genocide man chose to do evil instead of good. It was not God who told them to do evil; it was their choice. Now God is saving the remnants."
This is not the God of Job, who cannot be blamed because he is omnipotent. It is closer to the God of the earliest Genesis story, who walks in the garden with Adam and Eve, and who takes part in the world: powerful, but tribal, not omnipotent, and unable always to protect his people from their enemies. Religion of this sort will always flourish where there is misery, because it reduces anxiety. It is only in the largely secure environments of the North that we can see what is worrying about it.
Yet the wickedness that Bishop Ngarambe detected in Rwanda had come from the North. It was the colonial powers, he said, who had divided the country between Hutu and Tutsi.
"Rwanda is a monocultural country. Even though we have three tribes we also have one culture. The anthropologists would not understand how the country can be called three tribes when the culture is one and the language is one. So we are trying to correct what was wrongly introduced. And we believe that when people understand what went wrong and how it came about reconciliation will be possible."
The root cause of the massacres, he believed, had been multi-party democracy. If you start a political party in Africa, he said, the only thing people would ask was which tribe the founder belonged to, and everything else, including the nature and constituents of the opposition parties, followed from that. Without democracy there would have been no massacres in Rwanda. But he would only tell me this when we had left the press centre and were sitting in my car with the tape recorder turned off before I gave him a lift across the campus.
It’s hard to think of anything which more offends against the pieties of the North. Christianity and democracy are not the same and for most of their history have in fact been considered antithetical. It’s hard for us to see this because in America they are consubstantial and because democracy is linked, if less tightly, with freedom and Protestantism in the English imagination. But the Bible, though it may imply democracy, is not a democratic document; and the emerging undemocracies of the South can find plenty in it to justify themselves.
This is not just an African attitude. After the Southern USA and most of Africa, the third element in the Southern alliance against Northern liberal pieties is Asia. It is no coincidence that one of the ante-Lambeth conferences, to rally the southern forces before the battle, was held in Kuala Lumpur. An Asian Christianity, deriving its model of authority from managers in disciplined bureaucracies, is one of the fastest growing religious phenomena in the world today. In Korea there is Presbyterian church with a congregation of three quarters of a million.
And there is a curious timelessness about their belief in prophecy, which divides South from North almost as clearly as miracles do. I saw this first at Evensong, early in the conference, when a Pakistani bishop, SK Dass, laid out the biblical line on sexuality. "I personally believe that Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t exist 4000 years ago only, but these cities and these men are still having their existence in our world today. We, as bishops and as the torchbearers of the future of generations must raise our voice against lesbianism, gayism and homosexualism. And this is the heart of the bishops attending the Lambeth Conference."
Some of his audience must have looked doubtful at this, for he raised his voice and added, for the benefit of the North Americans, "If we remain silent at this time, belief will come from another place, but you, along with your fathers in evil will perish."
He talked as if Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of the Punjab, just down the plain from him; and as if fire and brimstone waited in heaven to judge us all. I remembered an English fundamentalist, an educated man, who had once shown me his holiday snaps from Israel: on a scrubby fawn hillside were some greyish animals, indistinct in the distance. “Look”, he said “There are sheep and goats, just as Our Lord would have seen them”.
It takes nothing away from the authentic loathing with which the southerners regarded homosexuality — and homosexuals — to observe that they had been marshalled and organised for the conference by the conservative American forces who saw gay clergy as an issue the liberals could not win. This was to be their Stalingrad, the end of the Liberals long, triumphant, offensive over women’s ordination.
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I wrote that in 1998. It would not need spelling out now
This is less true now than when I wrote it. The forms of Christianity that are growing, within the Church of England, too, are those which make prayer seem like a conversation -— though the answers are still inaudible to the outside world.