When I received a letter from the President of the Historical Society asking if I would consider being the speaker at this year’s annual meeting I was flattered. Then I read the fine print: would I consider talking about “the position of the third world Anglican churches in the current crisis”¦it would be helpful to have a clearer picture of the response of the African churches than the rather cryptic press accounts sometimes provided.
” The “crisis,” of course, is the situation we now find ourselves in as a global communion following two events in North America: the decision at General Convention 2003 to ratify the election of a man who is a practicing homosexual to be the Bishop of New Hampshire, and his subsequent consecration, and the decision by the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada to allow the blessing of same-sex unions within the diocese and the production of a liturgy for that purpose. These events have resulted in a perhaps unprecedented negative response by many in the communion. With regard to the letter of invitation I must be fair ”“ the topic was left completely up to me ”“ I was in no way coerced to speak about this subject. But the letter made its point: grave misunderstanding is far too easy if we know little about the context from which a statement is made or a position is taken. Even those of us Anglicans who live within the same culture have had a difficult time communicating with each other recently. How much more confusion is possible if we speak from differing culture contexts? The topic which the President’s letter suggested was both timely and crucial. But I immediately saw the potential landmines.
First, although I have lived in Africa and I love Africa, and although I have spent much of my academic life seeking to comprehend that wonderful place more deeply, I am not an African and I cannot presume to speak for Africa. Africa is an immense, varied, and complicated place. I am well aware that whatever I say some of my African friends will be well within their rights to question my judgement, or even my presumption to render an opinion. There is no one “African position” on the subject of homosexuality; neither is there one monolithic opinion about the wisdom of the actions of the Canadian and American churches, although it is quite clear that there is a majority opinion. Second, I was immediately aware of who my audience would be for this talk, and aware that many in the room would not share my own opinions about the meaning of the present situation. And finally, I am deeply conscious that our present troubles have left many of us emotionally raw. The issues of sexuality with which we have been struggling (and which can now be seen to involve also issues of culture and race, of money and power) touch all of us at deep levels of our being. Anger is not far from the surface of conversations. I have told my students many times that I would much rather be a church historian writing about these events three hundred years from now.