Religious Affairs: The division that dare not speak its name

Alienation between West and East threatens unity in the Catholic Church and various Protestant sects.

christians 298.88 (photo credit: ahmad gharabli )
christians 298.88
(photo credit: ahmad gharabli )
Homosexuality took center stage in the capital this week. The most obvious evidence was Thursday's "Jerusalem Pride and Tolerance March for Infinite Love." Another Jerusalem-based event that coincided with the gay pride parade, but which received much less attention, was GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Holy Land Conference and Pilgrimage. Part of the reason for the lack of local media interest may have been due to the low-key ambience at GAFCON. The gay pride parade, at least potentially, had the makings of a real happening. In past years, there have been fisticuffs, police grappling with zealots, burned garbage bins and the always-present danger of something really horrible happen, like it did in July 2005, when Yishai Shlissel, a religious extremist, stabbed three homosexuals, who suffered light-to-moderate wounds. Ostensibly, GAFCON had nothing to do with homosexuality. This conference, which brought together some 300 Anglican bishops, and another 1,000 Anglican delegates from around the globe, dealt with issues such as "The Gospel and Secularism," "The Nature and Future of the Anglican Communion" and one optional seminar addressing HIV/AIDS. There was not one lecture dealing directly with homosexuality. Yet it was the issue of homosexuality more than any other that sparked the ingathering of Anglican clergymen. Ordination of homosexuals and same-sex marriages are the most glaring examples of what some Anglicans perceive as a blasphemous deviation from Jesus's gospel. The watershed event that seemed to point to an irreparable split in the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion was about homosexuality. In 2003, Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, was elected and consecrated as the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. More liberal dioceses, located primarily in North America and Britain, either supported the decision or remained quiet. However, a large group of conservative congregants and clergy who come from the West, but also in disproportionately high numbers from Africa, Asia and South America vigorously protested what they called the "secularization" of the Anglican Church. These conservative Anglicans might represent only a third of the Anglican bishops, but they make up about 75 percent of Anglican churchgoers, said GAFCON organizers who spoke with The Jerusalem Post this week. An identical trend of an increasingly liberal West alienated from a more conservative East or South has threatened unity within the Catholic Church and various Protestant sects. But in no other church is the tension more pronounced. "In the Catholic Church, a local bishop would never dare publicly support the ordination of a woman as bishop, let alone a homosexual," said Rabbi David Rosen, the International director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee. "Protestant sects are much less centralized. Clergy enjoy much more freedom. The Anglican Church is somewhere in between. That's why it was more susceptible to the split that we are witnessing." The Church of England, known also as the Anglican Church or the Episcopalian Church, was created in the 16th century, and sought to distinguish itself from the corruption in the Catholic Church on the one hand, and the religious extremists of the Protestant Reformation on the other. GAFCON ORGANIZERS said they were not advocating a schism in the Anglican Church. Rather, the conference was an expression of an "impaired communion." Whichever terminology is used, it cannot be denied that the threat to the unity of the Anglican Church is very real. In December 2007, conservative Anglicans, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, whose diocese boasts a flock of 22 million, decided to hold a conference in Jerusalem to protest liberalization trends that led to the ordination of Robinson and to the recognition by some Anglican bishops of same-sex marriages. The result was GAFCON, which is being held in Jerusalem's Renaissance Hotel. GAFCON was timed to precede by a month the Lambeth Conference, the singlemost important Anglican Communion gathering, which convenes once a decade in Canterbury, England, and which is presided over by the head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Many of the bishops and delegates attending the Jerusalem conference will boycott Lambeth. The choice of Jerusalem, explained one of GAFCON's organizers, was natural. "Jerusalem, perhaps more than any other city, embodies the message that we believe in and the historicity and truth of the gospels," he said. "Jesus's life examples and teachings are real, just as the city of Jerusalem is real. And that is an important message to send out, at a time when there are those in the church who have ceased to take the scripture seriously." NOT EVERYONE was happy about the choice of the venue, however. The Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, who defined himself as "orthodox," said that though he identified in principle with many of GAFCON's goals, holding GAFCON in Jerusalem would be "a disaster." There are a number of reasons why GAFCON in Jerusalem is a headache for Dawani. The local Anglican community receives hefty financial support from some of the more liberal Episcopalian dioceses in North America that have begun recognizing same-sex marriages and more equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The best schools in Israel that regularly rank among the highest on their matriculation grades belong to the Anglican Church. Some 7,000 students, both Christian and Muslim, are enrolled in them. There are also dozens of hospitals and charitable institutions that receive "liberal" Episcopalian money. Dawani, then, cannot be seen as the willing host to a group of conservative Anglican clergymen who vociferously attack their liberal brothers for ripping apart the church by compromising biblical truth. At the same time, Dawani is firmly rooted in the faith communities of the Middle East, where homosexuality is an anathema. The very fact that homosexuality is a point of contention within the Anglican Church is probably an embarrassment to Dawani. As Dawani's spokesman put it this week, GAFCON was "importing conflicts into an already contentious region. The conference is imposing the issue of homosexuality on the diocese, at a time when this issue is not at all relevant. Why should the local community be forced to bring up this issue?" ONE WOULD be hard-pressed to finds parallels between Anglicanism and haredi Judaism. However, Dawani's opposition to the open discussion of homosexuality is uncannily similar to the Edah Haredit's policy this year vis a vis the Jerusalem Pride and Tolerance March for Infinite Love. Unlike in past years, the Edah Haredit, an umbrella group for some of the most extreme hassidic and Lithuanian sects in Orthodoxy, decided to ignore the gay pride parade. For the Edah Haredit, and perhaps for Dawani, recognition of the LGBT community is simply not on the agenda. Protesting homosexuality unnecessarily exposes the faithful to what they consider to be the "depravities" of homosexuality. For those within the Anglican Church who do see homosexuality as a relevant issue that needs to be confronted, what is the solution? What does an Anglican clergyman tell a gay congregant? One answer might be found in a flyer that was passed out this week at GAFCON. Entitled "Celibrate," the flyer encourages a "celebration of celibacy." Celibrate's motto: No Sex? So What!