Friday, July 4, 2008

What "liberal" means

My first Sunday in Kampala, Palm Sunday, I met with the Provost of All Saints Cathedral. There was nothing special about this; each week, newcomers are invited to meet with the Provost in his office.

There were just three of us: a woman visiting Kampala whose brother had been buried from the cathedral, my then-new-acquaintance Joseline, and me. The Provost was very amiable and talked with each of us about our interests and backgrounds. Since this was during the presidential primaries, he asked me about Clinton and Obama. “The only problem with Obama,” he said, “is that he’s too liberal.” Diplomatically, he added, “Of course the conservatives can be too conservative.” I just nodded.

What I wish I had said, just to blow the Provost’s mind, was, “I had no idea that the Ugandan church was so liberal.” I doubt I could have ever said that; it’s so far from my nature. I certainly couldn’t have said it my first week there.

But I had been astonished when I showed up at the cathedral that morning to find that their vicar was a woman. In my mind, I had linked “conservative” with opposition to women’s ordination as much as with opposition to homosexuality. From my perspective, that whole liberal-conservative continuum has a lot of room on it with little side alleys. But at this point it seems to me that “liberal” in the Anglican Communion is a code word for support of gay rights, no matter what else is on the table. It’s not a particularly traditional definition of liberal at all and I think it explains both the hard-line refusal to share the table and the strange bedfellows that the “conservative” churches make.

The other day on the BBC, the Right Rev. N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, had this to say about the recent GAFCON thingeymajigger (conference? pilgrimage?) and its final statement:

"The coalition of Gafcon is a very odd combination of hard-line evangelicals, who would never use incense in a communion service, who would never wear Eucharistic vestments, along with Anglo-Catholics from America for whom those things are absolutely de rigeur.

"You've also got people who are totally and passionately opposed to the ordination of women, and others who are not only happy with it, but promoting it. That's not a coalition that's going to last very long, to be honest. The idea that they have a monopoly on Biblical truth simply won't do and we must stand up to this, it's a kind of bullying.”

I’d add to Bishop Wright’s statement that it’s also an odd coalition of people who claim to be resisting the last gasps of colonialism and very colonial style bishops and church leaders.

More about all this later, but the point to be made here is that calling the African church “conservative” is a very sketchy definition at best. It’s a rather dishonest shorthand for the issue of homosexuality, which is why homosexuality will get a lot of virtual ink in this blog.

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