Having failed to establish much of a numerical presence in American society, the Episcopal Church, USA, succeeds in attracting attention by the continuing antics of a long parade of outrageous ecclesiastics. In 2003, attention focused on the ordination of openly homosexual Vicky Imogene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. While I am reluctant to add much to the torrent of argument caused by this event, one circumstance does deserve comment, and that is the absolute conviction that this particular “reform” is part of a powerful movement toward progress in Church and society. In asserting this idea, with all its implications about the superiority of secular over religious claims to authority, American and Western Christians do not appear to realize how massively they are departing from most of their religious history. Long after Bishop Robinson has been forgotten—long, perhaps, after his Church has disappeared—the resulting split in Christian loyalties may continue to reverberate.
As North American churches have discussed sexual issues, the debate has been largely fueled by the changing mores of the mainstream secular society. The pressure to change has not come from new textual discoveries by biblical scholars, nor from new insights from academic theologians, but from the changing secular environment. Awareness of changes in secular life pushed the mainstream Protestant churches to ordain female clergy during the 1970’s and to liberalize their attitudes toward homosexuality over the past decade. The liberal view holds that the churches must reform to accommodate what Chief Justice Earl Warren famously characterized as “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” For liberal Western Christians, these evolving standards constitute a source of authority quite as powerful as those orthodox values of tradition and Scripture, and generally more demanding. If anyone opposes these new ways—like the chorus of African and Asian bishops who denounced the “gay” ordinations as a “Satanic attack upon God’s church”—this shows that they are ill intentioned, ill informed, or (most likely) suffering from a grave psychological disorder that manifests itself in “homophobia.”
Just look at these arguments, however, from the stance of a Christian living outside the sophisticated states of North America or Western Europe. Look especially at the claim that the churches should respect the values of the secular society and should be influenced by them. Put bluntly, for a very large number of Africans and Asians over the past 30 years, the experience of secular states has been a catastrophe. Should we trust secular society, and the states built upon these values? Ask an Iraqi about his experience with secular states over the past 30 years. Or a Ugandan, or a Zimbabwean, or a Kenyan. Or ask a Nigerian, such as Archbishop Peter Akinola, who led the churches of the global South in protesting the policies of the American Episcopalians. Akinola grew up during the horrific ethnic and religious strife of the 1960’s, which claimed two million lives. From 1983 to 1999, his country was ruled by a series of brutal and stunningly corrupt military dictatorships that set back development at home and blighted the nation’s reputation overseas. Arguably, the only thing of value to come out of these regimes was the word kleptocracy, which they inspired.
Americans generally accept that the changes in secular values over the past few decades really represent a wonderful story of progress. But contrast the experience of post-independence Africa or Asia. The new regimes that came to power in the aftermath of colonialism usually defined themselves as secular, nationalist, and (in a broad sense) socialist, and their commitment to modernization made them enemies of most manifestations of traditional religion. As hopes of modernization failed, so did the associated ideologies and the attendant rhetoric. In the Middle East, once-intoxicating ideologies such as Nasserism and Ba’athism confront the overwhelming challenge of resurgent Islam. In Africa, the systematic failures of secular ideologies produced the agonizing sequence of military regimes and kleptocracies in most countries, with their pervasive corruption.
In vivid contrast to these failures was the dramatic success of religious beliefs and structures. Christian churches are booming across Africa and Asia, despite all the opposition and persecution from secular states and from Muslim rivals. Here again, African Christians face a very different experience from those of the West, since martyrdom is both a recent and a continuing reality. Repression by secular states often includes an incidental religious element because of the strong Muslim tradition in African armies, itself a hangover from the preference of colonial powers for Muslim “warrior races.” The soldiers serving dictatorships tend disproportionately to be Muslim, and their critics and opponents are Christian clergy.
For most of the global South, the secular narrative of progress is not plausible. Secular ideologies are false and destructive, their claims to provide growth and improvement are farcically inaccurate, and they are often associated with bloody repression. Where there is growth and success, it occurs within a religious framework. And Americans and Europeans argue that the Church should keep in tune with secular values? The concept is at best puzzling, at worst blasphemous.
This contrast forces us to ask, Which of those two models is more consistent with the whole history of Christianity from its earliest days? The vision of the benevolent state, evolving and maturing in its inexorable progress toward universal decency and benevolence? Or the image of the state as apocalyptic Beast, clamoring for the blood of the saints? The answer appears transparent. As Archbishop Akinola might have advised his Northern brethren: We both serve the Lord; you, in your way; I, in His.