Churchgoers embrace gay priest

2003-08-10 18:51

Cape Town - While US Episcopalians fight back protests over the approval of the church's first openly gay bishop, the Very Rev. Rowan Smith, the openly gay leader of one of South Africa's oldest Anglican parishes, happily cut a cake Sunday as 150 parishioners sang "Happy Birthday" to him.

Though Smith, dean of the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr in Cape Town, shocked the church when he announced his homosexuality from the pulpit about five years ago, many of his adoring parishioners have learned to accept his sexual identity, they say.

"I don't care about gay, gay, gay like everyone is saying. He is a good man who comes to see me in hospital when I am sick. We love him here," Ludmilla Dolganova, 80, said clutching a string tied to a bobbing green balloon at Smith's 60th birthday party.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church - the US branch of the Anglican church - is struggling to cope with the confirmation Tuesday of Bishop-elect V Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who is gay.

Several conservative diocese in the United States are investigating how they can divorce themselves from the national church.

Anglican bishops in Africa, Asia and Latin America have condemned the confirmation, and some threatened to sever ties with the US church.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has called an emergency meeting for October of the world's Anglican leaders to discuss Robinson's confirmation.

Standing in the small cathedral hall in rainy Cape Town, Smith and his congregants argue that his homosexuality has no bearing on his role as a religious leader.

"This cathedral is an icon of unity to the greater community," he said, standing in the gray, stone building, surrounded by stained glass windows. "I like to think that that is its appeal, ahead of people seeing my sexuality first."

Smith, who joined the clergy 35 years ago, said he always knew he was gay, but did not talk about it when he was younger out of fear of his family's reaction.

As he got older, he spoke more openly about his sexuality to the gay community, but he did not discuss it with parishioners.

When he was named Dean of Cape Town about seven years ago, a high profile position in the church here, he re-evaluated his decision. About five years ago, he took to the pulpit and told his parishioners he was gay.

Many were shocked, much like his family was when he told them. But they learned to accept him, Smith said, and it may have brought him even closer to his flock.

"It is common for women to hug you when leaving church, but now I find more men reaching out for that hug as well," he said. "It is a sign that we accept each other as people, as human beings."

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, head of the South African church, accepts him as well.

'Sexual orientation not relevant'

"The sexual orientation of a person is not relevant," he told a news conference Tuesday, singling out Smith as an example.

However, Ndungane said, homosexual clergy must be celibate, a rule Smith says he follows.

Since revealing his orientation, Smith has caused controversy.

Three years ago, he appeared in print and television ads for a gay and lesbian film festival wearing a full cassock with a red devil's tail sticking out the back.

"People say homosexuals are the devil's spawn," the caption read. "I don't believe it."

Smith said it was his way of fighting stereotypes that homosexuals are evil. He survived the public outcry for his expulsion after apologizing to the church.

He has also joined Aids activists in their bid to secure state funding to treat people infected with HIV, a position shared by Ndungane and many other religious leaders here.

Smith's progressive beliefs were evident throughout the cathedral.

In one corner, a wooden statue of a black Madonna holds an infant surrounded by candles. Bible readings are delivered in three of the country's official languages. English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, an indigenous black language.

Smith's character and beliefs are far more important than his homosexuality, Elise Van Wyk, 49, said as she helped celebrate Smith's birthday, which fell on Friday.

'Not just a gay man'

"He manages to break barriers of class, race, denomination, clan and sex with his sense of humor and inspiring love and humanity," she said. "Why people like him and accept him is because he is not just a gay man trying to do God's work. He is so much more than his sexual identity."

Though many African bishops have expressed disgust at Robinson's appointment in the United States, Smith said he does not believe a similar furor will erupt in South Africa.

"Under apartheid we realized what discrimination really is and saw it in all its forms. Our culture of human rights here is much stronger and perhaps our society is more open minded than those people debating this matter in the United States," Smith said.

"We learned not to judge. The church said this under apartheid about race and maybe they need to say it again now in this debate on sexuality," he said. (Sapa/AP)