Daniel Deng Bul Yak, archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, approaches life with faith and courage. Born in Bor County, Jongelei State, in Southern Sudan, Deng Bul has known war for most of his life. As a black African Dinka in an Arabist/Islamist-ruled country, he has been marginalized and persecutedall of his life. Deng Bul has faced down the radical regime of Omar el Bashir in Khartoum. He has confronted government spies within the ranks of the church. And recently he tackled a daunting new challenge – dealing with the U.S. Episcopal Church (TEC).
Twice this past year Deng Bul publicly called the Episcopal Church in America to repent for causing division by ignoring the pleas of the global Anglican Communion and consecrating Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the bishop of New Hampshire. At last summer’s Lambeth Conference of Bishops, and again at the Anglican Primates’ meeting in Alexandria, Egypt in January 2009, Deng Bul affirmed the Church of Sudan’s commitment to Biblical standards of belief and behavior. He explained that TEC’s actions put at risk the Church in the Islamic world. He declared that there was “no solution to the current crisis in the Anglican Communion” until the U.S. church repents. And he said that Gene Robinson should resign “for the sake of the Church.” More recently, the archbishop made the painful decision to request that TEC’s Diocese of Virginia recall an American priest who had been serving in Sudan for almost four years.
On May 13, 2009, Virginia bishop Peter Lee reported that the Rev. Lauren Stanley had been recalled from mission work in Sudan at the request of the archbishop. Stanley was Deng Bul’s classmate at Virginia Theological Seminary and served in Renk Diocese where he previously was bishop. She taught theology, liturgy, and English, and was chaplain at Renk’s new theological college. Stanley met a need for teachers in Southern Sudan filled by few American clergy. But while home in Virginia attending the annual diocesan council, she spoke in favor of a resolution calling for the blessing of “relationships.” Her comments contradicted the stand of the archbishop and “were deemed offensive to partners of the Diocese in the Episcopal Church of Sudan” Lee reported.
The troublesome resolution, entitled in typical Episcopalian lingo, Integrity of Committing Relationships, declared the diocese’s affirmation of “the inherent integrity and blessedness of committed Christian relationships between two adult persons when those relationships are characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.” Originally the resolution identified only “integrity,” playing on the name of TEC’s advocacy organization for the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) community, Integrity. But a council delegate asked immediately for an amendment adding “blessedness,” which added sacramental and liturgical approval to the relationships.
Another delegate, a frequent visitor to Sudan and a longtime friend of Deng Bul’s, objected to “blessedness.” Russ Randle was part of the Diocese of Virginia’s first mission to Sudan in 1998. He witnessed Deng Bul’s courageous confrontation with Bishop Gabriel Roric, a spy for the Khartoum government, in the Khartoum cathedral. And he knows Sudanese Christians face tremendous pressure from Islamists that connect them to Western decadence.TheWashington Times quoted Randle warning the council that “the diocese’s close relationship with the Anglican Province of the Sudan would be jeopardized” by such language. “I think we are going too far and too fast,” he added.
But Stanley contradicted Randle, saying, “This will not affect our relations in the Sudan.” There was an outbreak of defiant applause from delegates, according to the newspaper, as she declared, “People in the Sudan do–not–care,” emphasizing the last three words derisively. Stanley continued that the Sudanese were just hoping to stay alive and that “they think we’re nuts anyway.” In conclusion she said that even though the Sudanese Church disagreed with the U.S. church, “they are still partners with us in the Gospel” and “sexuality is not discussed.”
Well, now sexuality was being discussed. Stanley was the one discussing it and the one dismissing the uncompromising witness of the Episcopal Church of Sudan attested to by the archbishop. It is true that the Episcopal Church of Sudan had been relatively silent about TEC’s actions compared to many other provinces in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the post-gay-bishop communion, Sudanese Church leaders were rather preoccupied. They were the only functioning element of civil society, just as they had been through forty years of war. They were the voices of the persecuted, the ministers of healing, and the preachers of the Gospel.
The Episcopal Church of Sudan is arguably the neediest of the African Anglican provinces. Sudan’s peace agreement ended the Islamist regime’s active prosecution of war against the South and the Nuba Mountains. But the absence of bombs and bullets did not alter the scarred landscape, bereft of infrastructure and technology. It did not replace schools, hospitals, and churches destroyed by Khartoum’s Antonovs. And it did not provide time for bishops to discover how differently the U.S. Episcopal Church deals with both human sexuality and Holy Scripture. If they had, they would have found that sexuality is just the tip of the iceberg in regards to TEC’s abandonment of Christian orthodoxy.
When other provinces, such as Uganda and Nigeria, broke communion, refusing support from the U.S. church, TEC clung to Sudan. Over the past decade, U.S. parishes and dioceses helped build schools, churches, and clinics, and met the many needs of the Sudanese. The American church insists that regardless of differences over human sexuality the two churches can “walk together.” So the Sudanese attempt to balance friendship and partnership in ministry with TEC against distress over the American church’s departure from orthodox Biblical teaching.
But the U.S. Episcopal Church is not only walking in the opposite direction of communion partners with whom the Sudanese church shares a theological understanding; it is lobbing legal and linguistic grenades at their backs. Bishops and priests have been deposed and properties have been the subject of lawsuits. Global South Anglican church leaders who oppose their views are variously labeled as “homophobic,” “uneducated,” “primitive” in their understanding of Scripture, and “not Christian,” by the GLBT activists in TEC.
Now some of those linguistic grenades are aimed at Archbishop Deng Bul. He has been called a “hate mongerer,” someone who “pulled a publicity stunt” at Lambeth, someone who “spewed hate and contempt,” “the Chief Pharisee of Sudan,” a “pariah,” “whole lota Bul,” “overblown primate,” and other assorted names. A commenter on Christianity Today Liveblog raged, “Mr. Bul should pack up his bull and return to his country that is ripped with war, poverty, starvation etc. Let him work on his own house before he attacks another. Something like check out the beam in your own eye.” The commenter added, “We hope Mr. Bul is rewarded with his great desire to be with the Lord…very soon. He is truly a dinosaur and not a person for this time.”
Some TEC activists say the archbishop is betraying the interests and needs of his people and taking his stand on sexuality purely for political reasons. But other clergy from all over Sudan have similar concerns about TEC. They say that TEC is allowing culture to influence them to do things that are contrary to God’s will. They discern that “liberal churches” reinterpret the Bible in order to satisfy their own desires. They worry that their own faith will lose credibility in the eyes of Muslims. They believe that this will have an impact on all denominations in Sudan and that it will “affect evangelization and spreading the Good News to non Christians.” And they say that the “homosexual liberal church” in America has caused havoc in the Sudanese Church and society. Two new “Anglican” denominations sprang up in Sudan after Gene Robinson’s consecration. Both claim not to be “infected” by the U.S. Episcopal Church as is the Episcopal Church of Sudan. One of these was founded by Bishop Roric, the spy for Khartoum, who had finally been deposed by the Sudanese Church.
At Lambeth, Deng Bul reflected on the absence of some three hundred bishops of the Anglican Communion. These 300 were the bishops that had broken communion with TEC and who urged the Archbishop of Canterbury to administer church discipline by refusing to participate in Lambeth until TEC repented. But it seems that the western bishops who have departed from the Church’s teachings on the Lordship of Christ, some who don’t even believe the rudiments of the Christian faith anymore, are held in more esteem than these faithful brothers, from Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, and elsewhere who have given everything for the sake of the Gospel. Daniel Deng Bul Yak continues to approach life with faith and courage. But he approaches the Anglican Communion with sorrow.
*TEC, the U.S. Episcopal Church’s preferred acronym for itself.