The Archbishop’s gathering
The meeting of the leaders of the various provinces of the Anglican Communion, which took place last week, has been very confusing to follow. The confusion even extends to the name “Primates’ Meeting”, which is frankly not helpful for anyone with a normal sense of humour.
As far as I understand it, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited his colleagues to a meeting. Sexuality and marriage were not technically on the agenda. What was was the decision of the Episcopal Church in the USA to ordain a practising gay bishop in 2003, contrary to the previously stated Anglican view of marriage, and the effects of that decision on the Communion.
Various Anglican churches had set up an organisation called GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures) in opposition to the Episcopal Church’s action. A breakaway Anglican Church of North America is affiliated to GAFCON, and although it is primarily formed of African churches, a former Bishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, is its Chief Secretary.
Following a leak, the meeting issued a Statement on Friday 15th Jan, which ruled that the Episcopal Church be suspended for three years from representing the Communion in various ways, and taking part in some decision-making, but that all should continue to talk to each other, encouraged by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ian Paul (www.psephizo.com) in a post entitled “What does the Primates’ Statement actually mean?” analyses this Statement in some depth, BUT this post was issued before the issuing of the full Communique.
What is the Communique? The Communique is the official report issued by the Primates after their meeting. The Statement is only part of it; in fact it is the Communique’s Addendum A. The Communique includes the “thank-you-for-having-us” paragraph, and mentions the various other topics discussed at the meeting, including evangelism, which is the subject of Addendum B.
The Communique includes, although the Statement does not, the following paragraphs:
“The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people. (sic; my italics)
The Primates recognise that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt. Where this has happened they express their profound sorrow and affirm again that God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.”
So Archbishop Justin’s apology to LGBT people was not out of step with the meeting as a whole.
The Communique is prominently available on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website, and is worth reading, paying careful attention to the words “unanimously” and “majority” where they occur.
This result has been greeted with anger and dismay in the British media. It has also disappointed GAFCON, who according to Peter Jensen (interviewed on the GAFCON website) will find it difficult or impossible to have fellowship with the Episcopal Church unless it repents. GAFCON views the decision as a “small beginning”.
There are numerous comments on Anglican websites.
It may be worth asking what other possible outcomes there could have been. Surely, short of an unmistakable divine revelation to all present (which God does not often do), there were really only four: collapse due to a walk-out by conservative bishops; effective break-up of the communion due to irreconcilable difference; expulsion or similar of the Episcopal Church; the result we got.
Where does this leave us all?
I have a few muddled thoughts (one of them was inspired by a friend):
- Given the amount of prayer that went into the meeting, it is possible that the result is what God wanted. It is a spiritually healthy position for me to question whether I am in fact right;
- The Anglican Communion does not have a constitution or official rules. (Rowan Williams’ attempt effectively to create one failed.) Therefore part of the problem is everyone basically objecting to being told what to do by such an amorphous body. The Episcopal Church in the USA object to being restricted in who they can decide to ordain; many in the Church of England object to being hamstrung by the views of other nations’ (sometimes homophobic) traditionalists; the traditionalists, mainly African, object to having basic doctrine altered by churches in the white colonialist west, where Christian attendance is declining. These are all understandable points of view.
- For anyone interested in democracy, the traditionalists were the majority by a considerable margin. Does this mean anything?
- We are often told that the “real issue” here is not sexuality – that is only the “presenting issue”. The real issue is the authority of Scripture. There is a lot of truth in this view, but on the other hand it is useful for the traditionalists to say that, because the Scriptural texts appear to be on their side. Surely it is also true that “the real issues” include adaptability to the modern world, and how we deal with the people we perceive as “other”.
- It might be helpful for liberals on this point to remember that the traditionalists are not just saying “it is important to trust the Bible”. They are concerned that the Church not propagate what in their view are dangerous doctrines which tempt people to risk their eternal souls. This is not trivial.
- It might be helpful for traditionalists to remember that when the Anglican Communion insists that marriage is “a lifelong union between one man and one woman”, this can seem hypocritical unless you also suggest that every divorced Christian returns to their original spouse.
- As an admirer of “The Screwtape Letters” (who knew?), I sometimes find it helpful in a situation to ponder what the devil (however conceived) would want me to do, and then do the opposite. I am finding it difficult to work out what the devil would desire here, but surely he/she/it would want us to a) react with fury, hate or self-righteousness; b) make this the most important issue in the church; c) be frightened of talking to people; d) be frightened of doing what we believe to be right; e) be ashamed of the Gospel.
- It is plain that Archbishop Justin wants us to keep talking and manage to hold unity during disagreement. It is difficult to see that this can succeed in the long run (sadly) because surely the churches of North America and the UK are not going to wait the decades that it will take for minds to change in Africa; and on the other hand, LGBT Christians are not going to go away. However two web pages that offer a bit of hope are anglicannews.org/news/2016/01/archbishops-reflect-on-primates-meeting.aspx about the atmosphere at the meeting, and www.christiantoday.com/article/the.sacrificial.grace.of.bishop.michael.curry.of.the.episcopal.church/76718.htm about (among other things) the reaction of the Episcopal Church leader to the Statement.
I hope the above has been a bit helpful, and not offensive. Please remember I am not a theologian!
The PPI Blogger
PS The next post on this blog will be by my first guest!