In the past two weeks, one of the great engines of globalization has been sputtering badly, and almost nobody has noticed. The consecration of openly gay Gene Robinson as an Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire has drawn plenty of attention, as has the resulting uproar in other Anglican churches. Most observers have noted its place in the global politics of homosexuality, contrasting a liberal West with a traditional South, and moved on. This analysis fails to describe the implications of a split in the Anglican world. If missionary churches cannot remain in communion, then the world has become much less connected than it used to be.
For centuries, Christians have spread their faith across cultures, taking advantage of advances in transportation and communication to reach new parts of the earth and groups of people. Underlying this cross-cultural explosion has been the translation of Christian scripture, which both makes the central doctrines of the faith available to a broad audience and empowers peoples to make the Bible their own. Yale history professor Lamin Sanneh has argued that Africans could never have freed themselves from their colonizers if Biblical translation had not engendered a new appreciation for local cultures. In the last 30 years, leaders of Third World national churches have become increasingly effective advocates for their peoples, turning grassroots movements like the Jubilee 2000 debt-reduction campaign into global forces.
Even as it affirms the goodness of local culture and breeds national pride, Biblical translation also serves as a leveling force between nations. When they read the same Scripture and pray to the same God, British and Ugandan citizens have something in common more basic than any material or cultural differences. As Christians would see it, the Word of God humbles them all. A common religion is, unfortunately, no guarantee of eternal friendship; there have been wars enough between Christian nations. It does, however, provide all concerned with a baseline of common humanity and a platform for social improvement. Even in churches that exploited native populations, there were always voices invoking human equality before God and demanding justice for the poor.
That history of global cooperation, however, has seen a major reversal in the Anglican Communion. An emergency bishops’ meeting in mid-October, convened to deal with the schism that most expect to follow Robinson’s consecration, produced a nuanced and heartfelt document, which nevertheless made it clear that the actions of the U.S. Episcopal Church were bringing the Communion to the brink of schism. While top Anglican leaders, accustomed to soothing international tensions, reliably display such care, others throughout the Communion have not been so civil. A Nigerian prelate was quoted calling Robinson “lower than the monkeys in the jungle,” a direct insult to the humanity of millions of Westerners. Some American leaders have likewise suggested that if Third World churches break off relations with the ECUSA, Episcopalians should stop sending humanitarian aid to their countries and let millions perish from AIDS. This rhetoric suggests that extremists on both sides have come to define humanity itself not by traditional Christian standards, but by cultural understandings of sexual morality.
Traditional Christian globalization was made possible by a common reliance on Scripture, which declared that all humanity bore God’s image. The developing split in the Anglican Communion is being driven, in part, by the breakdown of that understanding of humanity, by a reliance on cultural rather than Biblical anthropologies. If different parts of the world can reject one another’s human dignity, then the kinds of global projects we take for granted may soon become much more difficult.
The bishops’ meeting recognized that the liberal West’s drift from Biblical sexual norms to cultural ones was hurting the Communion’s sense of common purpose. As a liberal Westerner, I am sorry to see a largely private issue like sexual morality blown up into a public fight that drives churches apart. As a student of Scriptural interpretation, however, I am forced to conclude that the bishops were right to blame the West. It is our innovations that have brought about this gulf, and we don’t seem to realize that it exists or care to fix it.
It can be easy for Christians and non-Christians alike to dismiss words like “schism” and “broken communion” as terms of church politics, interesting only as reflections of institutional power or societal change. It is too easy to forget how deep a pain they represent. They mean the breakup of spiritual bonds and the impossibility of cross-cultural institutions. In this case, they may mean that the common ground between nations is receding irretrievably under the floodwaters of cultural hatred. And we Western liberals, who have always preached universal personhood, have a special responsibility to try to restore it.
Christopher Ashley is a junior in Silliman College.