There is an old saying among war correspondents who cover life in the Church of England. The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British write the resolutions. Or does the American wallet come first? I can't recall at the moment, but the results are the same. The clever Brits almost always end up being the people who define what all the words mean and then they weave them into those all-important documents handed to the press.
Which means there is no way, no way whatsoever, to know if the following headline in the Guardian has any meaning -- "US church 'must repent' for gay bishop decision."
What does the word "repent" mean? I mean, what does it mean in the context of a British church in which there is no common definition -- especially among people wearing purple -- of what the word "sin" means? This isn't the only word in this report by the omnipresent religion-affairs writer Stephen Bates that is blurry at this point, since the canon lawyers have not yet been deposed.
African archbishops intensified the threat to the unity of the worldwide Anglican communion last night, and increased pressure on Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by insisting that the US Episcopal Church must be disciplined within three months unless it "repents" for electing a gay bishop. Their demand preempts the meetings of the commission set up by the church last October in an attempt to avoid a split, which is not due to report until the beginning of next year.
The crisis arises from the election of Gene Robinson, a divorced father of two, living with his male partner, as bishop of the tiny diocese of New Hampshire.
Yes, yes -- what does "discipline" mean? Oh, and does that have anything to do with changing the locks on the doors at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., or allowing priests who do not say the Creed with their fingers crossed to keep their pensions?
Aside from words that the British have not defined yet, the key idea in the Bates report is that the orthodox (small "o") bishops of the Third World are continuing to say that they have no intention of accepting money from the American church's endowment funds. The American church is declining in terms of members, but still has many large endowments left behind in faith by previous generations. Episcopal leaders tend to remind the Africans and Asians of this when theological disputes become heated.
At a meeting in Nairobi the archbishops, mainly from central and equatorial Africa, who have been among those most antagonistic towards homosexuality, also declared that they will refuse to accept any future funding from the US church. They insisted, however, that breaking away from the worldwide Anglican communion was not an option.
Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, chairman of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (Capa), said: "If we suffer for a while to gain our independence and our freedom and to build ourselves up, I think it will be a good thing for the church in Africa. We will not on the altar of money mortgage our conscience, mortgage our faith, mortgage our salvation."
Stay tuned. This may be settled in a decade or two. (Episcopal News Service photo shows Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church with Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria in March 2002.)