by Doug LeBlanc
Editor, United Voice
posted July 17, 1998
CANTERBURY -- During a conference dominated by themes of confession, repentance and reconciliation, more than 50 Americans asked for forgiveness that Bishop John Spong has called African Christians "very superstitious" and unshaped by the scientific revolution.
During an evening session on July 15, the Americans gathered at the front of the conference's meeting hall and faced fellow conference participants as Alex Dickson, the retired bishop of West Tennessee, spoke for them.
"We are deeply grieved by the words of our fellow citizen, John Spong," Dickson said. "We have been even more deeply grieved, if what has been reported is accurate.
"He has insulted you," Dickson said to African Christians. "We are ashamed for him, we are ashamed for ourselves. We ask your forgiveness, and we assure you that he does not speak for us."
As most conference participants offered a sustained ovation, African Christians approached the Americans and embraced them. Some Africans and Americans wept loudly as they embraced.
In the July 10 edition of The Church of England Newspaper, journalist Andrew Carey quoted Spong saying this of African Christians:
"They've moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They've yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we've had to face in the developing world; that is just not on their radar screen."
Photocopies of the interview spread widely among the 450 invited participants in a leaders' retreat co-sponsored by Sharing of Ministries Abroad (SOMA) and Anglican Renewal Ministries. The retreat, held July 13-16 at the University of Kent-Canterbury, followed an open conference that attracted 750 participants on July 8-12.
"Scientific advances have given us a new way of understanding homosexual people," Spong said in the interview, which Carey conducted at a central London hotel. "At the Lambeth Conference and in dealing with the Third World, this knowledge hasn't percolated down, and it's not going to change overnight."
Carey reports that, when he said African bishops might feel patronized by Spong's remarks, Spong compared them -- as he has often compared conservative Episcopalians in America -- to the advocates of slavery in the 19th century.
"If they feel patronized that's too bad," Spong said. "I'm not going to cease to be a 20th century person for fear of offending somebody in the Third World."
"For a man whose theology so emphasizes the virtues of love, he has very little love for his fellow Christians. 'I would rather they be Christians than animists,' he says of Christians in Africa, 'even superstitious, fundamentalist Christians of the kind I've experienced primarily in Africa.'"
Andrew Carey is the son of George L. Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and deputy editor of The Church of England Newspaper. Andrew Carey also helped his mother, Eileen, write her new book, The Bishop and I, which includes profiles of 22 bishops' spouses.
African bishops spent the week discussing how they will respond to Spong's remarks. A few African bishops responded in interviews with United Voice, but they have not issued a collective statement.
"Bishop Spong doesn't understand the African scene, doesn't understand the price the African Church has paid for her faith and has failed to appreciate the contribution the African Church has made to the Anglican Communion," said Bishop Henry Orombi of the Diocese of Nebbi, Uganda. "He has my sympathy. Nevertheless, I still love him."
"As far as the faith is concerned, the Church in Africa is strong," said Bishop Prudence Ngarambe of the Diocese of Kibungo, Rwanda. "It has produced martyrs. It has withstood external forces like communism and the threat of Islam."
Ngarambe said he and other African bishops are ready to challenge liberal American theology, regardless of any punitive financial responses by American Episcopalians.
"We are prepared to challenge the unorthodox teaching that Spong and his colleagues are propagating. Because of our faith, we are not scared about what they will do with resources," Ngarambe said. "We know that what he said is not what we are. We are not selling our faith. If we take money to support him, it would be like when Judas took money to betray Jesus."
Bishop Pie Ntukamazina of the Diocese of Bujumbura, Burundi, expressed similar commitment.
"If the world has become a global village, how about the Church?" Ntukamazina said. "If we don't speak up for our brothers in America, then we will sink together."
South African repentance
South Africans had offered a corporate act of penance a day earlier for their nation's history of apartheid.
The Rev. Trevor Pearce spoke about how his parish, St. Martin's in Capetown, engaged in healing work inspired by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Pearce is the first black vicar of St. Martin's, a predominantly white parish.
"My parishioners were scared, and quite frankly I was scared too. Who wants to speak a word of healing and reconciliation and end up with division and pain?" Pearce said.
Although Pearce first thought his white parishioners would do most of the repenting, God convinced Pearce that he bore the first responsibility to repent. Pearce said he heard God tell him, "You did not do enough [to resist apartheid]. You did not say enough. You were often paralyzed with fear."
Because of Pearce's anti-apartheid activism, he was arrested, shot at and almost run down by two men in a van. Opponents pelted Pearce's house with stones. Still, Pearce agreed with God that he could have done more.
The day of repentance arrived. Pearce confessed to his congregation and wept. Then his warden, a white man, urged his fellow parishioners to do their own repenting. For one hour, Pearce said, parishioners wept on each other's shoulders and asked forgiveness.
Pearce said he and other South Africans wished to repent for how their nation had destabilized other nations in southern Africa.
After Pearce's testimony, he invited all delegates from other southern African nations to walk forward, so South Africans could ask their forgiveness.
The leaders' retreat placed less emphasis on the Church's woundedness and brokenness than the earlier open conference.
Archbishop Moses Tay of the Province of South East Asia taught about Gideon as a warrior of God and compared him to contemporary Anglican leaders.
"It's not just a game," Tay said. "You are called in a time of national crisis, a time of national apostasy."
Bishop Dinis Singulane of the Diocese of Lebombo, Mozambique, spoke on the importance of evangelism. "It's good that many people are responding to the Gospel, but it's not good enough," Singulane said. "God's will is that all nations will be saved.
"Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life.' We are shown no other way," Singulane said. "The Church that does not evangelize is digging its own grave."
Elaine Storkey -- director of the Institute for Contemporary Christianity in London -- discussed how human dignity is under attack from animal-rights activists, popular culture, global consumerism, dictators and despair among the young.
"To be a human being is to be known, inside and out, by the God who made us," Storkey said. "The good news is that we are worth something, because God made us."
Conference delegates prayed often about the upcoming Lambeth Conference. At 1:30 p.m. on July 15, they all stood, faced toward Canterbury Cathedral down the hill, raised their arms and prayed in absolute silence.
United Voice www.episcopalian.org/eu/uv is the national newspaper of Episcopalians United. Distribute freely, with credit to United Voice for its reporting.