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Episcopal congregations seeking spiritual shelter in Africa

KAMPALA, Uganda—Angry over their U.S. church's position on homosexuality, a growing number of Episcopal congregations are seeking spiritual shelter thousands of miles away, in the Anglican churches of Africa.

In the Episcopal Church, priests have blessed same-sex marriages and one of the church's bishops is gay. In recent years, dozens of conservative congregations have left the U.S. church and joined Anglican dioceses in Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa.

The African churches are big, fast-growing, fervently evangelical and dedicated to conservative social values—including zero tolerance for homosexuality, which nearly all African countries outlaw and which church leaders here believe that the Bible forbids.

"It is a godsend to congregations who often feel isolated and cut off from their American diocese," said the Rev. James Stanton, the Episcopal bishop of Dallas, who's spoken out against the U.S. church's tolerance of gays. "They see the connection with African churches as a lifeline."

The Episcopal Church's consecration in 2003 of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, created a rift with conservative members of the United States' oldest church. That rift deepened with the installation this month of the church's new top bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who supports same-sex marriages and gays in the clergy.

Congregations from Long Beach, Calif., to Overland Park, Kan., and Raleigh, N.C., are among those that have left the Episcopal Church since 2003. Parishes in those cities have joined the 9 million-strong Anglican Church of Uganda, a small, mostly poor country in the green hills of East Africa.

The churches are spiritual cousins. The Episcopal Church was established in 1789 as the American branch of the Church of England. Both are part of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, led by the archbishop of Canterbury.

But church leaders in Uganda, where the first Christian missionaries arrived in 1877, have broken ties with the Episcopal Church. It's not just about homosexuality, they say; they also object to what they see as "scriptural revisionism" by some Episcopalians, including Jefferts Schori, 52, who's said that she believes there are other paths to salvation besides through Jesus.

"Biblically and culturally, we disagree with the teachings of those people," said the Rev. Samuel Ssekkadde, the bishop of one of the largest Anglican dioceses in Uganda, in the leafy Namirembe suburb of the capital, Kampala.

"In Buganda (the local language), there is no word for homosexuals. We decided that we did not want to be in fellowship with a church that has degraded our faith to that level."

In neighboring Rwanda, the church has established the Anglican Mission in America, a network that includes 109 U.S. congregations totaling 15,000 worshipers. About half the congregations left the Episcopal Church to join the Anglican mission, according to spokesman Jay Greener. Now they answer to bishops ordained in Rwanda, and Rwandan bishops visit member churches.

The number of American congregations under African authority is still dwarfed by the membership of the Episcopal Church, which totals 2.4 million. Some conservative churches have remained in the American church, even though many of their members also disagree about other issues, including the ordination of women as priests beginning in 1976.

The trend of some U.S. churches linking with African bishops also reflects the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa and the developing world.

Well over half the world's Anglicans now live in Africa, Asia and South America, where the conservative strain of the faith prevails. Bishops in these parts of the world have been among the most critical of the Episcopal Church's stance on gays and the election of Jefferts Schori, the first woman to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion.

In Uganda, Christians were persecuted for much of the 1970s under the rule of Idi Amin, and for the past 20 years the northern half of the country has been decimated by a deadly insurgency. But Christianity is enjoying an explosion throughout the country, with Anglicans accounting for nearly one-third of Uganda's 28 million people.

Sunday services in Kampala can feel like revival meetings, with pews jammed full of people and rarely enough Bibles to go around. Some conservative U.S. church leaders say that more of their worshipers are traveling to African countries on missions to revitalize their own faith.

"In Africa, people speak with a vitality and immediacy that is often lacking in Western Christians," Stanton said.

There are nearly as many worshippers in Ssekkadde's Namirembe diocese as there are Episcopalians in all of the United States. Uganda's archbishop, Henry Orombi, is a leader among conservative Anglican bishops worldwide and an outspoken critic of homosexuality.

Earlier this year Orombi made news in the United States by breaking ties with the Diocese of Virginia, which had defrocked a priest who criticized Robinson's consecration and whose church joined a diocese in Uganda.

The Episcopal Church was "reinventing the plain meaning of Scripture," Orombi wrote in a letter to the bishop of Virginia. Orombi declined to be interviewed for this article.

The church in Uganda, along with churches in Rwanda and Kenya, no longer accepts financial support from the Episcopal Church. Ugandan church leaders said they had declined more than $1 million in contributions since 2003 from U.S. churches that didn't back their rejection of homosexuality.

Without that money, the church has shuttered some theological education programs and has been forced to make other budget cuts, church officials said. In the bishop's offices, the telephones rarely work and electricity is sporadic.

The church still accepts money from congregations that support its stance on gays, however. Ssekkadde said American money helped with upkeep on the century-old St. Paul's Cathedral, a stately redbrick building perched on a hill, where U.S. priests are now sometimes ordained.

After decades of American missionaries spreading the gospel in Africa and schooling African bishops, some critics say the African churches are engaging in a form of "reverse colonialism." But Stanton, who's seen several congregations leave the Episcopal fold, said little had changed in those parishes.

"The Africans ... see fellow Christians struggling in difficult situations to be faithful, and they are willing to extend their helping hand," Stanton said. "In spite of all the critics, this is a gesture of charity."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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