Friday, January 15, 2016

Episcopal Church: In or Out?


What's going on with the Anglican Communion? In case you haven't noticed, the primates from each autonomous province of the Anglican Communion have been meeting in Canterbury at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABoC) to discuss the future of our shared relationships. Provinces from the "global south" are upset that provinces like the Episcopal Church in the USA (TEC) have continued to advance the cause of LGBTQ equality despite requests to stop. Actually, it's more complicated than that. There's more to it than to say that we disagree about issues of human sexuality. That's true, of course, but the presenting issue that threatens to splinter the Anglican Communion is a disagreement on how we move forward despite those differences.

Previously, groups from across the Anglican Communion have met to try to hold us together. Called "Instruments of Unity," these different entities (ABoC, primates' meeting, Anglican Consultative Council, and Lambeth Conference) have "agreed" on the steps we can take to prevent schism. For example, the Windsor Report called on provinces to stop intervening in other provinces (e.g. African bishops' continued efforts to establish a presence in TEC) and called on provinces to stop ordaining non-celibate homosexual bishops and adopting liturgies for blessing same-sex marriages (e.g. TEC's actions ever since 2003). Like all complex international arrangements, what it actually means to agree is murky. Did TEC agree to stop all ordinations that would seem controversial to others in the Anglican Communion? Did provinces from the global south agree not to accept the requests for oversight from bishops, clergy, and dioceses in TEC? About that, no one seems to agree.

So here we are. Although it's been out of the news for several years, this controversy has been quietly escalating behind the scenes. TEC continues to promote the full-inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church. African provinces continue to build strong ties to disaffected "Anglicans" in North America. In addition to pressure within his own church, which faces increased public disagreement over the role of non-celibate homosexuals in the life of the church, the ABoC feels the pressure from provinces across the Communion. "Fix this," we all seem to be saying. The failure of the poorly constructed Anglican Covenant process has brought the need for resolution back to the ABoC. And now he's doing something about it--or at least trying to. He's invited the primates to gather for what has been reported to be a last-ditch effort to hold us together. (To get a sense of just how difficult this will be, read Welby's comments about "schism a failure not a disaster" leading up to the primates meeting.)

So what's happening now? Early yesterday, I read a report from the Archbishop of Uganda that he had left the primates meeting frustrated that his proposal to censure TEC was going no where. That got my attention but didn't surprise me. He'd made his intention clear before the meeting started. His report suggested to me that the proposal for censure had been made but not voted on. A few hours later, news that TEC had actually been suspended leaked, and, ever since, my Facebook feed has been clogged with reports from the primates meeting. (Thank goodness my e-mail inbox hasn't been.)

What does the suspension mean? Take four minutes and read the actual report from the primates meeting. Because of "the change in [our] Canon on marriage," for three years TEC will no longer "represent [the Anglican Communion] on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity." That decision is based on the primates' collective (i.e. majority) assessment that the canonical change regarding marriage "represent[s] a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage" and that "such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of [the primates] as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion." Those are big words. They are a big deal. And they should be. And, in them, I think that the primates have made a good, reasonable, and defensible decision.

The will of TEC, as expressed in the actions of the General Convention, is clear. We have adopted rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. We have made canonical changes to broaden the definition of marriage to a non-gender-specific understanding. Through our Standing Committees and Bishops, we have continued to consent to the ordination of non-celibate homosexual bishops. Within TEC, those are not universally accepted moves. There are many within our church that believe in the traditional understanding of marriage and sexual relationships. But it is the clear understanding of the majority of TEC as our polity expresses it. I would not, therefore, expect our primate, Michael Curry, to apologize or repent for it. It is who we are and who we as a church believe God is calling us to be.

Across the Anglican Communion, however, that is the minority position. It should not surprise us, therefore, that our decisions have impaired our relationships across the Communion. And I believe it makes sense for TEC to withdraw from interreligious and ecumenical bodies that represent the whole Communion. And I believe it makes sense for TEC to not participate in any Communion-wide decision-making process on doctrine or polity. We cannot expect to represent the Communion when our own doctrine doesn't.

When the minority feels that it is committed to justice in the face of a persecuting majority, it must both stand true to its belief AND accept the consequences of that steadfastness. Although unjust, the arrest, suspension, and/or censure of the demonstrators are the expectations of those who reject the majority position. They believe that time will prove them right. And an attitude of love and respect on their parts provides the only hope for reconciliation and triumph.

Should we still share our prophetic voice across the Communion and across the world? Absolutely. And should TEC listen to the words of the primates and continually examine and reexamine our doctrinal decisions? Of course we should. We all have much to learn from the stories of each other. And should the Anglican Communion find ways to include us in parallel conversations as other provinces discover their own path toward LGBTQ equality? Absolutely. And will they? I don't know why they wouldn't. We haven't been kicked out of the Anglican Communion. We are still in Communion with the See of Canterbury. We are still as Anglican as any province. We still embrace those relationships even if they are impaired. It's just time for us to reassess what participation in those relationships means.

I choose to see this as less of a punishment or suspension and more of a necessary and voluntary withdrawal. Are issues of human sexuality adiaphorous (i.e., not worth splitting over)? I think so, and I think our continued presence in the Communion suggests that others agree. Does our commitment to equality create a "huge strain" on the Communion? Clearly the answer is yes. In all relationships, however, clarity and communication draws us toward the best possible future. This decision by the primates makes that possible. We've all put our frustrations and commitments on the table. Although painful, we have a hopeful path ahead of us. Will this hurt members of TEC who yearn to be faithful? As Michael Curry said in his response to this decision, "For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain." I feel that pain, too. But I believe in the value of the Anglican Communion as the vehicle through which God can bring the good news of the gospel to the world, and I don't want our Communion to break apart. This decision might be the best hope of that that we've seen since 2003.

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