Thursday, December 21, 2006

No, but seriously ...

[edited twice for style early one morning]

... here's the serious post.

I am stunned by the PR corner Bishop Minns and Archbishop Akinola have put themselves in. They both know that Akinola can't back down on this legislation. It would make him look weak, and it would further his embarrassment among his Nigerian co-religionists about the consecration of Bishop Robinson (Diocese of New Hampshire).

But if they stay where they are, they have to weather the increasing hail of bad press Truro and The Falls Church have received after their votes to leave for the rather sordid "civil rights" pasture of the Church of Nigeria.

The two letters in the CANA release, while artful, avoid what's really at stake in this PR disaster: has the Archbishop, in fact, endorsed the legislation (twice), and does he now recant his endorsement or has he in any way softened his stance toward the wording of the legislation?

But it's best to proceed with their actual quotes (since I butchered Archbishop Akinola's in the last post). Here's what Bishop Minns had to say [my emphasis]:
I want to address one recurring untrue accusation concerning our attitude towards homosexual persons. Our vote was not an "anti-gay" vote. We affirm that as Christians we believe that every person, regardless of their sexual orientation, is made in the image of God, and deserving of the utmost respect. ... I have attached a recent letter from Archbishop Peter Akinola that addresses this same issue from his perspective. Please notice the difference between what he actually says and believes and the dismissive tag lines that are often attributed to him.
Well, that sounds great, and I wish I could stop there, but here are Archbishop Akinola's words on the matter:
Sadly, I have also heard that some are suggesting that you are now affiliated with a Church that seeks to punish homosexual persons. That is a distortion of our true position.
This is tough to swallow. The "distortion," as Akinola calls it, began with his own press releases (he implies that his Standing Committee is responsible for these, even though he signed his name to both -- Fr. Jake has more.) The Archbishop goes on, regarding the legislation [my emphasis]:
We recognize that there are genuine concerns about individual human rights that must be addressed both in the framing of the law and its implementation. I am glad to inform you that while the Honorable Speaker of the House, a Moslem, wanted the immediate and outright passage of the bill, the Deputy Speaker, an Anglican, persuaded his colleagues to allow full public debate on it.

I am troubled, however, by the silence of outside commentators concerning the rights of the clergy, Christians, and particularly converts to our Church whose lives are threatened and too often destroyed because of mob violence. I see no evidence of compassion for those whose rights are trampled on because of the imposition of unjust religious laws in many parts of the world. There seems to be a strange lack of interest in this issue.
With all due respect to the stature and importance and worthiness of the Archbishop's other ministries, this is a dodge. In fact, it's two separate "dodges".

The first is to suggest that the worst provisions of this bill are the Muslims' idea. While he's not happy with those provisions, he suggests, there's just no denying Nigerian Muslims what they want. Thank goodness, we should be saying, that there's an Anglican in the House of Representatives able to stand up to these Muslims and protect us Christians from their radicalism!

Small problem: if Archbishop Akinola had had these same reservations about this bill back in February, or back in September, why didn't he say so? Why let the debate go to the House of Representatives before "recogniz[ing] that there are genuine concerns about individual human rights"? If it is truly his position, today, that the bill goes too far in its particulars, and that it would violate the human rights of Nigeria's gay and lesbian population (he never says this explicitly), then he should provide suggestions for specific changes -- perhaps the removal of Sections 6 and 7? That way, the bill would still ban gay marriage, but not speech and all those other pesky civil rights necessary to a democracy.

Second dodge: Archbishop Akinola seems to be saying that the silence of his detractors when a church or cathedral is burned or a cleric is wounded or killed at the hands of Muslim extremists (a myth) bars them from any further discussion of the Archbishop's behavior, beliefs, or ministries.

This is not credible for two reasons. First, we who have ties to western Churches like the Anglican Communion are far more capable of affecting those institutions than we are capable of changing public opinion among Nigerian Muslims. We want our church and our institutions to be immaculate and beyond reproach. Of course, we would also like Islam in northern Nigeria to operate within the confines of civil discourse. We would like Shari'ya to be pushed back and for civil law to predominate. We recognize the dangers of Shari'ya, and we have been yelling about its abuses long before 9/11 and long before Archbishop Akinola began to endorse this legislation. There is, in fact, no "lack of interest" on that issue. If the Archbishop thinks otherwise, it might be because his would-be abuses -- as close to home as they are to so many of us -- have overshadowed those of Islam in our eyes, and that he has found this to be a bit of a shock.

But in an evaluation of the place of the Church of Nigeria in this "recent unpleasantness" in northern Virginia, it really doesn't matter what Islam does, which brings us to the second reason why his statement about "mob violence" is a dodge. Regardless of the troubles in Nigeria regarding Shari'ya, there is no consistent philosophical or theological position one can take that would allow a cleric as highly placed as Akinola to state that persecuted Christians in northern Nigeria should be protected as they do missionary work among their Muslim brethren, while at the same time stating that gay and lesbian Nigerians should lose their chance to speak out on their own behalf.

From a purely PR perspective, there are only three ways through this pickle. One, ignore the bad press and push on as usual, stopping every once in a while to shift the weight of the growing burden of bad public perception that CANA carries as it moves to Nigeria. Two, have Bishop Minns publicly denounce the legislation, saying that it should never have been endorsed by Akinola in the first place. I do not believe that Minns will do this, but it's an option. Three, have Archbishop Akinola withdraw his endorsement, or modify it.

There is no middle path here, even though they seem to want it both ways. The second and third options would alleviate much if not all of the bad press, but would damage Akinola's credibility, either here or in Nigeria. The first, which is the course most likely to be chosen, would represent a path of principle. Minns and Akinola would be saying, "we believe in what we are doing, now leave us alone." It would require that they stop defending Akinola's endorsements; they would have to own them. The position that they don't support the legislation, but actually do, is no longer tenable.

But PR isn't everything. How one bishop looks relative to another is ashes in the wind compared to the real suffering of gay and lesbian Nigerians that we can all expect should this legislation pass (and it will). Let's not forget that. Apparently these two have.

And Merry Christmas!

I'm flabbergasted

There's a new press release from Bishop Minns of Truro Church and Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. It's basically damage control. If I could paraphrase the key bits of Akinola's letter, it would read something like this:
Thanks for your vote. I heard you guys are concerned that you're now "anti-gay". Not true. I love gay people. Many of my best friends are gay people. I also heard that you're worried about the fact that I endorsed that legislation, not once but twice. Yeah, I know. It looks bad. But we don't want to be like Massachusetts or Cape Town, do we? I mean, seriously. And besides, there was this one guy in the legislature, an Anglican, who wanted to debate the bill. The Muslim guy didn't. Did I mention that no one ever brings up the fact that there's Shari'ya in many northern Nigerian states? Anyway, thanks for your vote.
Serious commentary after these messages ...

[By the way, Jim Naughton and Fr. Jake have more.]

The Nation's Richard Kim asks the right question

Given these statements [of Archbishop Akinola's support of the "gay marriage" legislation], the attempts by Akinola's supporters to distance themselves (and him) from his previous support of this draconian legislation ring false. Is this crusade what the parishioners of Truro Church and Falls Church in Virginia, who according to World magazine include "leaders of government agencies, members of Congress, Washington journalists, and think-tank presidents," meant to endorse by siding with Akinola?
Richard Kim is not expected to "get it" when it comes to why these parishes are departing, but when will the parishes themselves "get it" why their realignment comes with this public stigma? Are they prepared to have their witness to the world be forever colored by their new Archbishop's failure to understand the basic importance of certain civil rights?

We're waiting.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

No surprise -- more bad press

The Economist doesn't really "get it" as to why parishes like Truro and The Falls Church have voted to leave, but the press is bad, either way. Quote [my emphasis]:
The breakaway congregations are putting themselves up for adoption by Anglican archbishoprics in the developing world. One would-be parent is a Nigerian bishop, Peter Akinola, who runs the largest province in the Anglican communion, and who has pronounced views on homosexuality: he supports legislation that would make it illegal for gays to form associations, read gay literature or even eat together. There are also suitors from Rwanda, Uganda and Bolivia.
From commentary at the Guardian (UK), which is indeed free [my emphasis]:
Now these two Virginia congregations have taken the plunge, placing themselves under the authority of Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of the Church of Nigeria - a man who not only opposes gay bishops but enthusiastically supports a proposal by his nation's government to outlaw meetings of homosexuals. In doing so, these parishes - whose histories are wrapped up in the history of the founding of American democracy - have betrayed both their American and their Anglican roots.
This meme has stuck: Archbishop Akinola endorses legislation that would curtail basic freedoms for gay and lesbian Nigerians, most notably the right to speak out against their own oppression. The departing parishes now have the very tough task ahead of them of convincing others that they don't support jailing homosexuals, Bishop Minns words aside. A superficial PR campaign won't be enough.

UPDATE Dec 20, 9:18: From a Meyerson op-ed in the Washington Post:

... The presiding Nigerian archbishop, Peter Akinola, promotes legislation in his country that would forbid gays and lesbians to form organizations or to eat together in restaurants and that would send them to jail for indulging in same-gender sexual activity. Akinola's agenda so touched the hearts of the Northern Virginia faithful that they anointed him, rather than Jefferts Schori, as their bishop.

Monday, December 18, 2006

This time, paragraph three

Reuters has coverage of the recent Virginia parish departures. Mention of the Nigerian legislation? You betcha. Third paragraph:
The Nigerian church is headed by Peter Akinola, who has supported a proposed law in Nigeria that calls for prison terms for homosexual activity.
Will the press keep covering this story, day after day? No. But when it does come up, when new parishes leave for the Church of Nigeria's oversight, this will be one of the ways by which Peter J. Akinola is known.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Not whence but whither

[updated below]

Personally, the question for me has never been whether Episcopal parishes like The Falls Church or Truro in northern Virginia have the right to leave the Episcopal Church, nor do I particularly care if they fight to keep their property, or give it up to their diocese as they leave. In other words, I don't dispute the whence of their decision -- I'll grant them that they have just cause to leave the Episcopal Church, since I will challenge neither the courage nor the need for their decision.

What I will challenge is the whither. Why go to Nigeria, of all places? Well, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times doesn't go into too much detail on the subject, and I must confess that I'm not sure I could adequately explain the historical reasons myself. But in her mention of the imminent departure of The Falls Church and Truro, she makes mention (but little more) of the primary reason one might object to Nigeria [my emphasis]:
In Virginia, the two large churches are voting on whether they want to report to the powerful archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, an outspoken opponent of homosexuality who supports legislation in his country that would make it illegal for gay men and lesbians to form organizations, read gay literature or eat together in a restaurant.
It is this paragraph that should give the greatest pause to those within the Episcopal Church who wish to realign with external Anglican provinces like Nigeria. Readers of the Times might well agree with the departing parishes' reasons for leaving -- i.e., the perceived non-evangelical character of much of the Episcopal Church and its countenance of homosexuality -- but would then go on to question why these parishes would wish to swing entirely to the other end of the spectrum and join the Church of Nigeria, whose highest church official has publicly called for the passage of legislation that would put gay and lesbian Nigerians in prison for just about anything.

What is obvious to some is not as obvious to others. It is possible to be against both homosexuality and jailing homosexuals. The Church of Nigeria (Anglican) has yet to discover a way to do both (for a variety of reasons detailed elsewhere).

In leaving the Episcopal Church for the Church of Nigeria, these parishes send two equally important, but distinct signals to the rest of the world and to their brothers and sisters in other denominations: first, that they are true to their principles and are no longer able to tolerate what they believe to be heresy within the Episcopal Church; and second, that their principles guide them to desire oversight from a Church that would take away the speech, assembly, press, and free exercise of religion rights of gay and lesbian Nigerians.

This NYT story reveals something very important about the emerging character of the press coverage of the conflict within the Anglican Communion. Now that the NYT has brought it to the light of day, descriptions of ecclesiastical departures from the Episcopal Church for Nigeria will henceforth always mention Archbishop Akinola's endorsement of that crap-tastic Nigerian legislation. I guarantee it.

The congregants of these parishes should know that. Sadly, few do.

[edited slightly for style, 23:39, Saturday, Dec 16]

UPDATE Dec 17, 15:33. The Falls Church and Truro have voted to leave the Episcopal Church and keep their property. All votes were in the affirmative and in the 90s%.

And, as expected, the press coverage in the Washington Post mentions the legislation [my emphasis]:
The churches voted to align themselves with a new group that hopes to eventually be home to thousands of dissident Episcopalians, the Convocation for Anglicans in North America, which is led by the Rev. Martyn Minns, the last rector at Truro. CANA is formally under the Church of Nigeria and Archbishop Peter Akinola, who supports a proposed law in Nigeria that would outlaw public and private gay activity. The American dissident churches have not been pushing to outlaw gay activity.
Good on Bill Turque and Michelle Boorstein for making it clear that leaders of these Episcopal parishes have denied support for that legislation (even if those leaders' denials have been more defensive and accusatory that one would hope), but it's going to continue to follow them around so long as it's on the verge of passing (or if it passes), and so long as Archbishop Akinola endorses it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"There is a lot of ignorance"

That notorious "same-sex marriage" bill is again up for debate in the Nigerian Federal Assembly. Davis Mac-Iyalla, of Changing Attitude Nigeria, tells me that it is under review by the House of Representatives' Human Rights Committee, and is expected to pass prior to the April 2007 presidential elections. While Nigerian politics are nearly inscrutable to me, I am willing to bet that not voting for the legislation's passage would be a difficult vote to explain to one's constituents, and it definitely wouldn't help to curry favor with various Nigerian religious organizations (especially the Anglicans), which, as far as I can tell, support this legislation unanimously.

When reading the "same-sex marriage" legislation -- which can be found as an appendix to Ephraim Radner's and Andrew Goddard's recent article in Fulcrum -- one is immediately aware that the legislation goes far beyond a statement by the Nigerian Federal Government that it will not recognize same-sex marriages; the legislation effectively abridges speech, press, assembly, and free exercise of religion rights for all homosexual advocacy, public, private, or in the media. Given the rather sorry state of Nigeria's judicial system, the vague wording of the legislation, and the potential for egregious abuse, the ramifications of such abridgement would be well beyond anything we here in the US could possible understand.

Katharine Houreld of the Associated Press recently published a surprisingly in depth outline of what those ramifications might be [my emphasis]:
Anyone attending a meeting between gay people, even two friends in a private house, could receive a sentence of five years under the act.

... "This meeting, right here, would be illegal," says activist Alimi, stabbing the air with a French fry for emphasis as he sits at a table with three gay friends and a reporter. "We could be arrested for talking about this. You could be arrested for writing about us."

... Haruna Yerima, a member of Nigeria's House of Representatives, portrays the legislation as aimed at stamping out something already well under control.

"It's not really such a big problem in Nigeria, we just want to prevent such occurrences (gay marriages) from happening here," he says.

Yerima said he approved of the limitations on films and books because they could be used to "make such practices popular." Even social contact between gays should be limited, he said, because it might encourage behavior that was "against our culture...against our religion."

Civil rights organizations and human rights lawyers have said that the bill could also be used to deny legal representation to gay people who have been arrested.

... Nigerian Anglicans split with the American Episcopal church over the ordination of a gay bishop and many in the country say they want to prevent anything similar to the South African legislation.

But Akin Marinho, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, says that bill's prohibitions are illegal under Nigeria's constitution and intenational treaty obligations. Not only does the bill affect freedoms of speech and expression, but foreign companies could face lawsuits if gay or lesbian staff are unable to take up positions in Nigeria, he says.

"It's a civil liberties issue as well as a gay rights issue," Marinho says. "Under this bill, anyone watching 'Brokeback Mountain' or even 'Will and Grace' could be prosecuted ... it could also infringe on lawyer-client relations," he says, pointing out that the vague wording of the bill could interpret a meeting between a gay client and a lawyer as a meeting designed to promote same-sex relationships.

Even some conservative religious leaders say the bill goes too far. Though Bishop Joseph Ojo, who presides over the congregation at the evangelical Calvary Kingdom Church, says gay relationships are "foreign to Africans" and should be outlawed, he adds that homosexuals should "have freedom of speech and expression."

Nigerians have been publicly flogged, exhibited before the press naked, or beaten severely in prison after being charged with homosexuality. Alimi's companions say they're wary of voicing too much opposition to the new law out of fear of arrest. Death sentences have been meted out in the north, though no one has yet been executed.

"There is a lot of ignorance, and that is why people are afraid," Alimi says. "But we are not willing to come out and say, yes, I am gay. Here I am. I am human too."
[An abridged version of this article was published by the Houston Chronicle.]

Many Nigerians believe that there are, in fact, no "real" homosexuals among them. It is difficult for those of us outside of Nigeria to understand this, and it is in part because of this lack of understanding that so few in the United States, especially those with affiliations to religious groups in Nigeria that have endorsed the legislation (like many readers of Titus One Nine or Stand Firm in Faith), can grasp the magnitude of the situation. Yet regardless of our ignorance, Nigerians themselves understand quite well that this legislation is intended to stamp out speech, prevent gay and lesbian organizations from organizing, and make second-class citizens of "suspected" homosexuals.

This is not academic. It's not the same debate as is commonly heard in the US and Europe about granting the same rights, priveleges and responsibilities to same-sex couples as to opposite-sex couples. It's a real threat to the lives of what could amount to millions of Nigerians. Those complicit in this legislation's passage, both within Nigeria and without, will have a lot to answer for.

For more on the American and Anglican angles on this story, read here, here and here.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Oh, Martyn

A note of uncertain date by Martyn Minns of Truro Parish regarding Archbishop Akinola's attitude toward imprisoning gay and lesbian Nigerians has appeared on Truro's website. Here's an excerpt (h/t ThinkingAnglicans):
In a recent Washington Post article, Archbishop Peter J. Akinola was characterized as "an advocate of jailing gays." That is not true.

Archbishop Akinola believes that all people—whatever their manner of life or sexual orientation—are made in the image of God and deserve to be treated with respect. "We are all broken and need the transforming love of God," Archbishop Akinola said to me during a recent conversation.
Archbishop Akinola may say one thing to the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns when they're in private meeting, but he does quite another in his public statements. If Akinola doesn't advocate jailing gays, then why, on at least two separate occasions (here and here), did he endorse legislation that would do so? Where were the caveats? I guess the "transforming love of God" is some pretty tough love if disagreeing with the good Archbishop could put you in a jail like this.

As Jim Naughton says [my emphasis]:
One does not support laws criminalizing certain activities unless one wants to put the people who break those laws in jail. Archbishop Akinola supports a piece of Nigerian legislation that includes the possibility of five year's imprisonment for gay people, and their advocates, should those people exercise rights to speech, assembly and religion in ways that the law proscribes. As I've pointed out numerous times, this bill has been criticized by the U. S. Department of State and numerous human rights groups.

... Leaving the Episcopal Church does not require associating with those who endorse the violation of human rights. It does not require associating with those who bear false witness against their enemies. This is a choice Bishop Minns has made freely. It is a choice that the vestries of Truro Church and the Falls Church have made freely as well. They are entitled to their choice, but we are entitled to elucidate what they have chosen.
Can't say it better than that.

UPDATE: I should add that Bishop Minns has had plenty of time to deal with the confusion and controversy surrounding this situation. He was in a position, all along, to simultaneously push Archbishop Akinola to stand down from his strong stance on this legislation and realign his parish with the Church of Nigeria.

I don't see how those two actions would have been incompatible, except that to do so would have softened the political aims of the conservative wing of the Episcopal Church.

Frankly, I'm surprised. Martyn Minns can read, and he can understand a basic civil rights issue when he sees it. He can also understand that silencing opponents is the wrong path for a Church to take. So, why on Earth has he let this get so unbelievably messy?

Archbishop Akinola DEFINITELY supports legislation in Nigeria that calls for prison sentences for homosexual activity

American press coverage of all things "church" is too, too careful about offending sensitive ears.

Today's Falls Church News-Press has a story on the upcoming vote by the nearly 300-yr-old Falls Church Episcopal on whether to leave the Episcopal Dioces of Virginia for the Anglican District of Virginia, under the oversight of Primate of the Anglican Province in Nigeria, Archbishop Peter J. Akinola. At the risk of oversimplifying the situation, this vote is nominally over the issue of whether The Falls Church can any longer countenance what they consider to be the permissive position of the Episcopal Church regarding homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and Biblical orthodoxy.

Regular readers of this site are familiar with this story, and with the Nigerian question, so I most certainly won't bore you with details, but the coverage of the vote, written by News-Press staff writer Nicholas F. Benton, is skittish about some of the facts [my emphasis]:
In the Falls Church Episcopal’s case, if the congregational vote goes the way the vestry wants it to, the church will depart the Episcopal denomination in favor of an alternate configuration known as the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).

... The CANA structure the church would affiliate with, should the vote to secede pass, will be under "under the spiritual authority and protection" of Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, described as the "chairman of the Primates of the Global South," according to a letter from Yates to the congregation on Dec. 2.

Archbishop Akinola allegedly supports legislation in Nigeria that calls for prison sentences for homosexual activity. According to a comment on his popular blog this week entitled, "Slouching Toward Nigeria," conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan remarks that the Falls Church Episcopal will be aligning with a bishop "who believes that gays should be incarcerated for the crime of adult consensual sex and that free speech should be curtailed."

First, there is no question that Archbishop Akinola supports prison sentences for engaging in homosexual activity. However, that ship has already sailed -- "sodomy" laws have been on the books in Nigeria since before independence in 1960. No "allegedly" about it, but it's irrelevant.

Second, the issue is not whether Archbishop Akinola supports "sodomy" laws, but that he supports legislation, which has not yet passed, that would curtail the right of gay and lesbian Nigerians to advocate on behalf of same-sex marriage or their sexuality. It would effectively ban the press from discussing homosexuality in a positive light (not that it does now), and it would ban groups from organizing on behalf of changes to the law that would restore those civil rights.

In short, it would do more than simply ban gay marriage (which is not recognized by the state anyway) -- it would remove the basic speech, assembly, press, and free expression of religion rights of a small and vocal minority. It would make gay and lesbian Nigerians "shut up."

But most seriously, the legislation -- which has been endorsed by Archbishop Akinola not once, but twice -- would effectively outlaw a new Anglican gay and lesbian church group in Nigeria that calls for the acceptance of homosexuality within the Church. The legislation, which was introduced just after a series of public excoriations of this new group's leader by Church of Nigeria officials, would effectively silence the Church's political opposition on the issue of homosexuality. While the Church is under no obligation to recognize homosexuality as Changing Attitude would want it to, it is not in the Church's best interest to be perceived as simply gagging its opponents.

Nor is it in the best interest of the congregation of The Falls Church to vote to associate itself more closely with the Church of Nigeria without serious consideration on how Archbishop Akinola's actions will reflect on them and their parish.

To whit, do they wish to be perceived as silencing a gay and lesbian churchgoing minority, and with a prison sentence of 5 years?

Nicholas Benton does a good thing by bringing in Sullivan's short comment, but like many journalists covering this tough issue, he is both too careful, and not careful enough. On the one hand, he uses words like "allegedly" when describing attitudes and actions that are well documented. On the other hand, he follows Sullivan's lead too closely, thinking that the pitfall for The Falls Church is Akinola's opposition to gay marriage, rather than his endorsement of legislation that would put his political opponents in prison just for speaking their minds.

UPDATE: Discussion of the Falls Church story and general issues relating to the Nigerian legislation can be found here on Titus 1:9.