By Jim Naughton
Archbishop Daniel Deng’s call for the resignation of Bishop Gene Robinson today surprised many of his friends and colleagues in the Episcopal Church because the Sudanese Church has extensive relationships with Episcopal dioceses and parishes, and openly gay clergy and lay people are active in these relationships.
“More than a dozen dioceses in the US are supporting, either through formal or informal relationships, ministry in Sudan, including literally hundreds of parishes, with relationships going back more than two decade,” said an Episcopal clergy person who is active in these relationships.
Both Deng, a spokesman for the Episcopal Church and at least one diocesan bishop said they hope these relationships continue.
In issuing his call for Robinson’s resignation, Deng said, “I’m not talking to the individual bishops that are relating to the Sudan, but I am talking to the institution of the Episcopal Church in America.” The church should “allow Gene Robinson to resign.”
One Episcopal bishop involved in a companion relationship with a Sudanese diocese met Deng ishortly after the press conference, but was unaware that the archbishop had called for Robinson’s resignation. Deng told him that the Sudanese value the partnership it has with his diocese. The Sudanese diocesan bishop expressed similar sentiments in a later meeting, the bishop said.
The Rev. Chuck Robertson, canon to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, said the Episcopal Church “cherished our relationships with the various dioceses there. Our goal has been …. to make a difference, to respect the dignity of every human being, to bring the good news of God in Christ to people, to support and strengthen and encourage. That has not changed.”
In the Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Virginia has perhaps the most extensive relationship with the Church of Sudan. It is also the diocese most deeply involved in litigation over church property with breakaway congregations that have affiliated with African churches, making Deng’s call for the Episcopal Church to abandon such litigation all the more provocative.
Two of Virginia’s three bishops and a former assisting bishops have visited the country, and the relationship has spawned numerous projects, programs and visits back and forth.
The Rev. Lauren Stanley, the Episcopal Church’s missionary to Sudan, comes from the diocese. Stanley is a contributor to the Daily Episcopalian blog on Episcopal Café, and has written about her experiences in Sudan and the role of cultural differences in the conflict within the Anglican Communion.
Deng spent a year at St. Paul’s Church in Arlington, where he was extremely popular, said an acquaintance of Deng’s.
Virginia Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity school co-sponsor a visiting teachers program.
The Diocese of Missouri also has a companion diocese in the Sudan. Lisa Fox, who is openly gay and keeps the blog My Manner of Life chairs the committee, and has written quite recently about the relationship, and about a visit from Deng here and here.
Deng’s friends in the United States say his opposition to homosexual relationships is well known, and that he has expressed concerns about the effect of Robinson’s consecration on his ability to evangelize in a predominantly Muslim country. However, they said that they assumed Deng was aware that some of the leaders of companion programs with Sudan were gay.
While Bishop of Renk, Deng maintained a companion relationship with All Saints Episcopal Church in Chicago, which he visited about a year ago. All Saints’ Rector, the Rev. Bonnie Perry, is openly gay and lives with her partner. Perry’s sexuality was much in the news in 2006 when she was a candidate for Bishop of California.