Lambeth Perspective: World Debt, Muslims, and Sexuality

Canterbury: Tuesday, 28 July 98

This report was filed by Simon Sarmiento, on the scene in England.

Other Anglicans Online coverage, with links to many other articles, is on the web at

The campaign to raise public awareness about World Debt continues. On Tuesday, the entire conference made its way to London for lunch at Lambeth Palace, a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, and a boat ride on the Thames.

Some bishops met with British and European politicians in a follow-up to last Friday's plenary discussion at which the controversial Christian Aid video had been shown, and when some of them felt James Wolfensohn had over-reacted. The Bishop of Montego Bay (Jamaica), Alfred Reid, said of that:

The response of the president of the World Bank to a rather tame film shows a level of intolerance and insensitivity which surprised even someone like me who did not expect much. It is not lost on me that the president of the World Bank devoted only five to seven minutes of his 25-minute speech to the actual subject of debt - the rest being nothing more than a defensive diatribe against the Christian Aid film. He left before the responsive speech by the Archbishop of Cape Town.

And the Bishop of Mexico, Sergio Carranza-Gomez, said:

I understand part of his reaction but I think he over-reacted. We cannot deny the fact that the bank and the IMF are really squeezing life from many of our countries.

The Bishop of Worcester (England), Peter Selby, had publicly endorsed the video in the plenary's last address.

Copies of the video are on the way for all the bishops. It is a gift from Christians in this country. They see it as a resource. I see it as an honouring of our conference and an honouring of the subject.

In the tape, a young boy tells how he was forced to drop out of school because his parents cannot afford to pay the fees instituted by the Tanzanian government as part of their debt repayment efforts. According to the video, 17 countries in Africa have fewer children enrolled in school now than they did in 1980 because of the school fees.

The video took particular aim at the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative of the World Bank and the IMF, claiming that it was too small an effort. "Europe spends on ice cream alone twice as much as HIPC," a United Nations Development Programme official says.

At the Lambeth Palace meeting today, the Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, said in a statement issued in advance: ( see )

Today in my discussions with the British Chancellor and the German ambassador, Gebhardt von Moltke, the Russian Ambassador Yuri Fukine and Michael Monderer, Director of International Debt policy, US Treasury - I raised the following questions.

Why do Western creditors, from strong economies, refuse to offer immediate and substantial debt relief to the poorest countries, except on the basis of consensus from all creditors? Why in particular will they not write off odious debts?

South Africa did not wait for such consensus before writing off all the debt owed to her by Namibia. In doing so, the new South African government did not ask whether we could afford to offer such relief; we did not wait to reconstruct our own economy before offering debt relief; we did not ask whether the debt was payable or unpayable. Nor did we impose any conditions on our neighbour. We merely declared those debts as immoral, odious debts incurred while Namibia was occupied by the apartheid regime.

We call upon the rich countries to follow the example of the new South African government. To write off the odious loans given to dictators like Suharto of Indonesia, Marcos of the Philippines; to Mobutu of Zaire and to the various military regimes of Brazil and Nigeria.

Western allies did this for Germany after the Second World War. Let us do it now. To enable the impoverished people of debtor nations to have a fresh start; to give us hope for a new millennium.

The bishops were addressed by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair as well as by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. Mr Brown told the bishops from across the world, that a dual-pronged effort was needed to relieve Third World debt. Both government and individual people had a part to play. He announced that the UK government was setting aside £60m in tax incentives which he hoped would produce £250m for charities. At the government level, the chancellor called on countries that are owed money by indebted nations to follow Britain's example and target export credits for the poor countries solely on peaceful and productive spending, instead of weapons. Aid loans to the poorest countries should be written off as well. Mr Brown restated the UK government's objective of helping all countries burdened by heavy debt to join international efforts towards debt-relief by the year 2000. So far just six countries are involved in the programme, while another 14 are waiting to qualify.

On Monday afternoon, the bishops considered Muslim-Christian relations. Bishops from various Asian and African countries described their experiences. The tone was not entirely encouraging. The Bishop of Rochester (England), Michael Nazir-Ali, a native of Pakistan, chaired the session. Media images of Islam often are violent and intolerant, Bishop Nazir-Ali pointed out. "We have to ask, however, whether these are the only available images of Islam. What else can we say about a great world faith, which has given rise to so many civilisations?" He said that he has taken on the task, as part of his Christian mission, to teach that Islamic law or shari'ah is not unchangeable, that it does have flexibility, and that the basic tenets of Islam are, in fact, democratic. There are those who have a vested interest in arguing that the shari'ah does not change, he noted. "In Pakistan, the blasphemy law is, in fact, profoundly un-Islamic. In the Koran there is no punishment on earth for apostasy, nor for blasphemy. The Prophet himself forgave those who insulted him. We must continue to campaign for its repeal." Some governments, however, "such as the oppressive, ideologically driven regime in Sudan, seem to use adherence to Islamic law as a way of legitimising government ambitions," he said.

The Bishop of Kaduna (Nigeria), Josiah Idowu-Fearon, said despite claims that the two faiths could live together in mutual trust and respect, his own experience in northern Nigeria gave him little grounds for optimism.

The reality is conversion in Islam spells death," he said. "That is what we experience and they will refer you to the Koran. If you want (the views of) academics, it may be different; but if you want reality, come to Africa and see what's happening - because conversion equals death.

Asked if a Muslim-Christian war on a global scale was inevitable in the next century, Bishop Idowu-Fearon said:

If it's going to happen at all, I believe it's going to begin in the continent of Africa. One way Christians can avoid such a war is to study Islam. I look at the Roman Catholic establishment and they have a huge, huge organisation in Rome. No matter what you need to know, you can get it. I'm not asking that we duplicate that, but something similar, where faithful Anglicans who do not want to be confrontational can go and learn from history.

The surprise event of Tuesday was an official press release which reported that "in an interview last Saturday" the Bishop of Newark (USA), John Spong, had expressed regret for his earlier statements characterizing African views on the Bible as superstitious. " ...I've been heard to insult Africans, for which I am really sorry. That is certainly not my intention," said Bishop Spong. In using the word "superstitious" to refer to African views on theological issues, he was misunderstood to be labeling Africans as superstitious. That is not the case, he said. "That was an unfortunate word and I think it communicated an unfortunate message," he said. Whether this rather carefully worded statement can bring a truce between him and the African bishops remains to be seen. Official ACNS story can be found at

Meanwhile, the founding editor of The Independent newspaper, Andreas Whittam Smith, wrote a column for that paper today in which he expressed a rather more moderate view of the debate on homosexuality than his colleague of last Thursday. Here are a few extracts.

Until last week's debate in the House of Lords, I didn't expect to have to say that clarification is even required about whether the Anglican Communion believes that homosexual people should have equality before the law. But some English bishops voted against equalising the age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals.

The first step towards resolving the issue would not be difficult. That is to indicate what kinds of sexual behaviour should be condemned. The conference preparatory document entitled Called to Full Humanity provides a starting point. It says of promiscuity, adultery, prostitution, child pornography, active paedophilia, bestiality and sadomasochism that these forms of sexual expression are sinful. This list can by applied to both heterosexual and homosexual behaviour (reading "adultery" as infidelity). Agreement should be fairly straightforward, though what is meant by promiscuity would have to be carefully stated. There are also defenders of sadomasochism between consenting adults in private to be heard. Having defined behaviour of which the Anglican Communion disapproves, then it could turn to two big questions. First, should a blessing, a form of marriage service if you like, be provided for same-sex couples, who are neither promiscuous nor unfaithful? It is surely not good enough for the Church to say that celibacy is the only option for gay and lesbian persons. And second, should people who openly profess that they are gay or lesbian be ordained to the priesthood?

Anglicanism is by nature intuitive and moderate. Cardinal Newman said that "every organisation seemed to start with a prophet and end up with a policeman". Actually the Church of England itself, the founding church of the Anglican Communion, began with a policeman (Henry VIII) and has never produced a prophet. That is why I think it will successfully come to terms with homosexuality as it has in the past decade come to terms with the question of women priests. The gay bashing of the 1998 Lambeth Conference will in time be seen as an aberration. After 2,000 years, the priesthood would at last be completely open - to men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

The House of Commons agreed today to accept the Criminal Justice Bill as amended by the Lords, i.e. it will not include the controversial clause reducing the age of consent. The government has promised that separate legislation will be introduced in the autumn to deal with this point.

Copyright © 1998 Society of Archbishop Justus.
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