A rebel Anglican bishop in Zimbabwe

If generic New York Times readers know anything at all about Anglican bishops in Africa, surely they know that most of them are quite conservative on matters of faith and practice. For example, they are opposed to homosexual activity of any kind -- a position that is very common on a continent in which their growing churches often directly clash with conservative Islam. But something strange is happening in Zimbabwe, where an Anglican bishop has openly rebelled against the Anglican shepherds in Africa, as well as the archbishop of Canterbury. While officially defrocked and excommunicated, Nolbert Kunonga has cast his lot with President Robert Mugabe and his regime's efforts to strangle any churches who refuse to play by the government rules.

All of this is covered in frightening detail in a recent Times report, including reports of rape, murder, corrupt courts, confiscated churches, etc. While Mugabe has clashed openly with the bishops in his own faith -- Roman Catholicism -- tensions have been especially great in the rapidly growing Anglican churches in the region, which are highly evangelical and often openly Pentecostal.

Kunonga wants to grab control of more and more of these Anglican flocks, thus helping protect his, uh, lord.

Mr. Kunonga’s aim, he and his adviser, the Rev. Admire Chisango, said, is for their breakaway Anglican church to control about 3,000 churches, schools, hospitals and other properties in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi -- a treasure accumulated since Anglican missionaries first arrived in what is now Zimbabwe during the 19th century. ...

Like Mr. Mugabe, who encouraged the violent confiscation of white-owned commercial farms, Mr. Kunonga casts himself as a nationalist leader who is Africanizing a church associated with British colonialism.

At some point, I began to be very curious to know more about Kunonga and his beliefs and, I assumed, the Times would eventually tell me. I think that the editors think that they accomplished this goal. I am not sure about that.

So how does the Times describe this bishop, who has rebelled against the conservative Anglican bishops of Africa (as well as the establishment represented by Canterbury)? Well, we know that says he is an anti-colonialist who wants to confiscate properties so they can be used by the state. What else are we told about the theology and beliefs of this political scientist and bishop? There is this:

Mr. Kunonga, who earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from Northwestern University and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary outside Chicago, says that his success in controlling church properties is due to the persuasiveness of his legal arguments in court, not Mr. Mugabe’s influence.

“I’m superior intellectually and from a legal point of view,” he said. “I’m very superior to them.”

Then, of course, there is this:

Mr. Kunonga often echoes Mr. Mugabe’s favorite themes, including the president’s loathing for homosexuality. This issue provided Mr. Kunonga’s rationale for withdrawing from the mainline Anglican church in 2007. He claimed homosexual priests and congregants had gained influence in the church, though mainline church leaders here, as a matter of policy, do not conduct same-sex marriages or ordain gay priests. Bishops in the mainline church saw Mr. Kunonga’s move as a power grab.

So what does this tell us?

At this point, I have to ask a question: How many Times readers can we assume know anything about the theological background of the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary? For example, how many would know that this United Methodist institution has long -- despite the presence of the word "evangelical" in the title -- been a center for trailblazing work on the mainline left? Perhaps its bestknown faculty member, for many years, was Rosemary Radford Ruether, an articulate Catholic feminist who is on the far left edge of the Vatican's most fiery critics.

Most of the Anglican conservatives from Africa would never come near this kind of campus, preferring to head to places such as Princeton, Cambridge, the Trinity Anglican School for Ministry near Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

This fact fact may or may not be crucial in this story. However, I think it's possible that many if not most readers would do the following math -- "evangelical" seminary plus opposition to homosexuality means that this rebellious bishop, who may or may not have blood on his hands, is another one of those crazy African Anglicans on the right that the Times has told us so much about.

Or, is there another scenario? After all, this brilliant anti-colonialist political scientist with a doctorate from a high-quality liberal campus (who is fighting the conservative Anglican bishops on his conservative continent) may be something completely different. Might be be rather complex, some twisted combination of liberal beliefs and totalitarian tactics?

Do we know that for sure?

No, we don't. Again let me say: No. We. Do. Not. Know.

You see, we don't have enough information. After all, the Times team didn't really seem very interested in what Kunonga believes, other than that he loathes homosexuality. Oh, and he went to an "evangelical" seminary. Thus, this fallen bishop must be, well, you know.

No further questions needed.

PHOTO: The Garrett-Theological Seminary near Chicago.

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