Newsmakers: London forum brings views from Nigeria, U.K., U.S.

October 21, 2004

Exploring the Anglican Communion's diverse cultural contexts and its public role in global affairs, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life hosted a discussion at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, London, on Tuesday, October 19.

The forum, titled "Anglicanism and Global Affairs: The Windsor Report and Beyond," welcomed three speakers to the panel: the Rt. Rev. Dr. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Archbishop of the Province of Kaduna, Anglican Church of Nigeria; the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA; and Dr. David Martin, Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics (Emeritus). Dr. Timothy Samuel Shah, the Pew Forum's Senior Fellow in Religion & International Affairs, presided.

The discussion came just one day after public release of the Windsor Report, the culmination of almost a year's dialogue between the 17-member Lambeth Commission on Communion. The report includes recommendations on how the 38 Anglican and Episcopal provinces can remain in communion, especially amid differing viewpoints.

Defining culture

Fearon and Griswold described the different contexts in which their respective cultures live out the Gospel message. "The Church of Nigeria is very evangelical [and] gives a lot of authority to the bishop," Fearon said. "It's difficult to find a Nigerian who will tell you he or she is an atheist."

Episcopalians in the U.S. are grounded in the baptismal covenant, Griswold explained, "and that is affirmed through meeting week by week and sharing the bread and cup of the Eucharist. "So when we talk about church, we recognize that sacramental aspect as more defining."

Commenting on the current differences throughout the Anglican Communion regarding issues in human sexuality, Fearon described how the Anglican Church in Nigeria finds the present crisis extremely painful. "The Nigerian culture has no word for homosexuality. If you have homosexual tendencies you go to the native medicine man because it's seen as a disease," he said. "In my culture most Anglicans see this [current debate] as a waste of time. Why are we spending so much time and so much money discussing this?"

The Nigerian Anglican/Muslim/Roman Catholic does not hate homosexuals, Fearon added. "We see it as a sin [and] do not condone their lifestyle. There are homosexuals in Nigeria and we have a ministry to [them]."

Griswold underscored the importance of context, acknowledging Fearon's overview of his society and flavor of the Church in Nigeria as extremely useful. "All our interpretations are affected by where we find ourselves," he said. "The tradition of Anglicanism in the United States is quite diverse. There's a tradition of pluralism. There has never been one interpretation of scripture [and] usually there's a context of mutual respect. So in our patterns of worship there is quite a bit of variety."

Referring to sexuality as being very much part of the public discourse in American life, Griswold said, "Homosexual persons are very visible. So it is only natural that we invite those around us into the life of the Church."

Professor David Martin, final speaker at the forum, expressed the need to understand a clash of cultures. "Western cultures try to respect other cultures, but when it comes to sexuality they cannot agree," he said. "...Many African Christians find it bizarre that Western Christianity has a different viewpoint on homosexuality."

The cross-cultural situation is hugely complicated, Martin said, adding that the politics are also competitive. "With Islam as a direct neighbor and influential, Anglican Christians in Nigeria cannot adopt homosexuality into its culture."

Primary concerns

Griswold highlighted the Episcopal Church's commitment to global reconciliation. "One thing the Episcopal Church takes seriously is the role of being an advocate for the global community and being in communion with other people throughout the world," he said. "Many primates have said to me that, although they do not agree with our stance on homosexuality, their concerns are primarily with issues of war, disease, HIV/AIDS."

In his closing comments, Griswold acknowledged the diverse nature of the Anglican Communion and expressed his confidence in the Windsor Report's endeavors towards healing and reconciliation. "We live with a diversity, and yet we can make common cause together. So I hope that out of the Windsor Report, which is very nuanced, we can contain the difference and fulfill the mission of the Church and the life of Christ in the Gospel."

Also conveying his respect for the work of the Lambeth Commission and, in particular, its recommendation for the Anglican Communion to adopt a covenant, Fearon said, "I am very optimistic about the report. If we had a covenant I don't think we would be in this situation."

Fearon mentioned what it means to part of a global family. "Don't think that the African Church will withdraw from the Communion -- we won't," he said. "This Communion does not belong to the Nigerian Church, it does not belong to the American Church. It belongs to the Body of Christ."

The Pew Forum, a project of the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., is a nonpartisan organization that seeks to promote a deeper understanding of the relationship between religion and public life around the world.