JOHANNESBURG (Reuters Life!) - When Anglican priest Jo Mdhlela preached his first sermon espousing equal rights for gays and lesbians, he was met with puzzled frowns by many in his conservative African congregation.
But despite opposition in his mostly black church near Johannesburg, Mdhlela hopes to persuade his flock that being Christian does not mean rejecting gays — contrasting with most clergy on the continent, who believe homosexuality is sinful and un-African.
“Jesus is challenging churches,” the green-robed cleric told his congregation in English, helped by an interpreter at his side who translated his message into the local Zulu and Sotho languages.
“Jesus is saying if you said apartheid was unjust then you must say laws discriminating against homosexual people are unjust.”
South Africa’s Anglican church has long nurtured a liberal tradition that sets it apart from its more conservative and mostly evangelical counterparts on the poorest continent, one bolstered by its opposition to white minority rule.
That split has been magnified by the debate over the role of gays and lesbians in the church — an issue which threatens to split the worldwide Anglican church and has pitted those in developing countries against liberals in the West.
South Africa backs the official Anglican line that gay priests may be ordained as long as they remain celibate. But Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane has distanced himself from conservative African bishops who say being gay is wrong.
His famed predecessor Desmond Tutu said he was “ashamed to be Anglican” when the church rejected proposals to reform its stance on gay clergy in 1998, according to a new biography, and has compared homophobia to apartheid.
Compare that to comments by Lagos Archbishop Peter Akinola, Africa’s leading opponent of gay clergy: “I personally think that this is an attack on the Church of God, a Satanic attack.
“I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man. It is so unnatural, so unscriptural. Even in the world of animals, dogs, cows, lions, we don’t hear of such things.”
The difference in approach between South African Anglicans and their counterparts on the continent is in part explained by the history of Anglican missionaries in Africa.
The early Anglican missionaries to Nigeria and much of East Africa came from largely evangelical backgrounds and taught a more literal interpretation of the Bible. Some missionaries to South Africa came from another branch of the Anglican church, which has since taken a more liberal view of homosexuality.
South African Anglicans are a virtually lone liberal voice among Christians at home, with the country’s Catholic church and most evangelicals firmly opposed to a bill which is set to make the country Africa’s first to legalize same-sex marriage.
The Anglican church’s role as a vociferous critic of apartheid under Tutu cemented its liberal credentials and focused its theology around issues of social justice rather than personal morality. It also forged strong links with U.S. Anglicans — the global church’s most liberal wing.
“The length and intensity of the struggle for liberation in South Africa forced theologians to very deeply think through fundamental issues,” South African journalist John Allen, Tutu’s biographer and former press secretary, told Reuters.
But not all Anglicans in Southern Africa subscribe to the liberal leanings of its leadership. Anglican Mainstream, a group that urges orthodox interpretation of scripture, says ties with the U.S. church are too strong and do not reflect the views of ordinary Anglicans in South Africa.
“Strong links (with the U.S. church) formed in the 1980s were good at the time but have tied us to them in an unhealthy way,” said Anglican Mainstream spokesman Canon Dave Doveton. “At the grassroots we are very different from the Americans. We are an African church and we should be identifying with Africa.”