ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Anglicans around the world are deeply divided over social issues, including homosexuality. Those differences now have them on the verge of a major global breakup. The Anglican Communion includes the U.S. Episcopal Church as well as churches throughout Africa and other parts of the global South. NPR's Tom Gjelten has the story.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Anglican church leaders from across the Communion are meeting behind closed doors this week at their mother church, the Canterbury Cathedral in England. If they can't bridge their differences, it may be the last time they gather. Charlie Masters, an Anglican priest from Canada, is among those following the proceedings.
CHARLIE MASTERS: I don't know where it's heading or what might happen, but I know it's not been easy.
GJELTEN: The U.S. Episcopal Church and Anglican churches in other northern countries are generally liberal, accepting of same-sex marriage and gay priests, but their membership is declining. Anglicans in Africa alone now account for about 60 percent of the church membership worldwide. But Anglicans of the global South tend to have strict views on sexuality and marriage. None of the leaders in Canterbury is giving interviews this week, but here's Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria from an interview in 2013.
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NICHOLAS OKOH: The other group contemptuously refer to us as conservative and ignorant. As far as we are concerned, the biblical understanding of marriage is male and female.
GJELTEN: The differences are complicated by history. Anglicanism in the global South is an outgrowth of British colonialism. This week's meeting was called by the Reverend Justin Welby, who, as the archbishop of Canterbury, is the global Anglican leader. Welby, who has traveled widely in Africa and elsewhere, told a Washington audience recently that he's found many Anglican leaders feeling like new moral values are being imposed on them by their old colonial masters.
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JUSTIN WELBY: It is a sense of, hang on; you are telling us whom and what we should be. A senior figure in one country said to me a few years ago - he said, I didn't go through the colonial period and get rid of you people in order for you to come back in a different form and do the same to me as you were doing before.
GJELTEN: One more consideration - Christians in the global South often compete with Muslims. Philip Jenkins, a religion historian at Baylor University, says their resistance to same-sex marriage must be seen in that context.
PHILIP JENKINS: If they were ever to waiver on these gay issues, they think that would just hand a massive propaganda victory to Muslims. Christians in those countries would be seen as just toeing the Western line, giving way to Western immorality.
GJELTEN: As the global Anglican leader, the archbishop of Canterbury is hoping for North-South reconciliation at this week's meeting. But bishops from the global South want Anglicans to take a firm doctrinal stand against homosexuality. Barring that, they say they'll walk out of the meeting. And they have allies among some conservative Anglican bishops in the U.S., Canada and Australia. A breakup of the Communion would be costly. The churches in the North provide much of the money for Anglican leaders in the global South. Bishop Charlie Masters from Canada supports the Southerners. He says the prospect of losing financial support will not deter them.
MASTERS: Many of these leaders, knowing the extent of need within their communities they're caring for, have actually turned their back on finances from churches who, in their view, are not operating by a principal to the situation. And so I think it only has strengthened our commitment to try to share with them.
GJELTEN: Many observers expected the Canterbury meeting would've broken up already over the ideological differences. It has not, but there is no sign of a pending agreement. One priest sitting in on a prayer service tonight noted on Facebook that the emotional and spiritual strain must be enormous. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.