On Marriage, Primates, and Communion

Primates-2016-mapMy Facebook feed this morning was a long thread of posts on the exact same event: the meeting of the Primates (that is, Presiding Bishops, Metropolitans, Archbishops, etc.) of the Anglican Communion this week. What has many American Anglicans–i.e. Episcopalians–agitated is the specific document that (according to some media sites) calls for a temporary “suspension” of the Episcopal Church of the USA (commonly referred to as “TEC”) from full participation in the Communion and for “sanctions” upon this church, primarily due to the fact that last year’s General Convention (the governing body of TEC) agreed to formally introduce a modified marriage rite for same-sex couples. Many articles have been written by angry Episcopalians condemning the Primates’ communique and heaping scorn on the Primates Meeting for agreeing to it; this article in particular has been getting a lot of traction.

So, Episcopalians are understandably frustrated, and not small number are lashing out on social media. Many Episcopalians have also made a point of publicly endorsing the very views on LGBT equality that have precipitated this conflict, and there is a growing sense of an Us vs. Them coming to dominate coverage of this meeting and the broader issues being discussed. But even though this communique has only been available for one day, already a massive amount of misinformation and problematic interpretation has been published and brandished; let’s take a breath, and then take a few moments here to actually look at the details of the statement and the relevant issues. I do want to point out that others have been quicker to address these misunderstandings, and I definitely recommend reading widely.

First off: those media outlets that are reporting that TEC has been “suspended” from or “sanctioned” by the Anglican Communion are in error. TEC is still unequivocally a member of the Anglican Communion; indeed: the meeting of the Primates doesn’t even have the power to remove a member national church from the Commmunion. (There was an earlier effort to endorse a statement calling for TEC to voluntarily exit the Communion for three years, but even this rather gentle disciplining was not endorsed by a majority of the Primates.) Furthermore, even those Primates who have called for some kind of disciplinary action have been extremely explicit in referring to TEC as a member church and have stressed a desire for unity and cooperation. As I will do throughout this post, I encourage you to actually read the communique itself, rather than relying on media outlets that, generally speaking, seem not to  know what they are talking about (ahem, Washington Post, ahem). The communique is available here. On the particular issue of TEC’s membership in the communion and the desire for substantive unity, I would direct you especially to items 1 and 7 in the communique. So, to be crystal clear, as there has been much confusion on social media about this: TEC is still a part of the Anglican Communion, and no one in the Communion is even disputing this.

Second: the accusations the Primates make in items 2, 4, and 5–that TEC has changed central doctrines and rites without consulting the Communion–are simply true. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the majority of TEC members who endorse full LGBT equality in the church (and I want to be clear that I am certainly a member of this pro-LGBT majority), there is no question that in changing fundamental doctrines and rites of our church without consulting the broader Communion, we have violated the polity of that Communion. Of course, those of us who believe strongly in LGBT equality are likely to stress that we feel that this is a moral issue of such importance that we felt justified–perhaps even led by the Holy Spirit–to make these changes. And in fact I personally hold this position. But the whole point of having a polity, a governing structure, is that it’s supposed to apply to everyone equally. Of course, everyone thinks their position is the morally right one. If every church, or parish, or individual asserted their own doctrinal positions as truth because they firmly believed them to be true, there would be no possibility of community or of unity.

Does this mean that I think we should not have made these changes without consulting the Communion? In truth, I believe TEC could and should have made more of an effort on this front, though I will admit to not knowing the details of every international meeting of Communion churches over the last 20 years. But, let’s be clear: TEC leaders also knew full well what the answer would be if we engaged in such a consultation: the majority of Anglican Primates would not have endorsed pro-LGBT language in resolutions nor any modified marriage rite. So even if we had bent over backward to engage in full range of bureaucratic consultation, TEC still would have been left in the same position: to make changes according to the conscience of the majority of TEC members, or to accept the will of the majority and not treat LGBT Christians with full equality.

I should interject here that I am not a “cradle” Episcopalian; I joined TEC because it manifested two aspects of Christian faith, each of which is equally important to me: first, it is a church that takes liturgy, tradition, and theology very seriously. Second, it is a church that nonetheless is willing to be disciplined and corrected by secular thought and engage in progressive changes when, after prayerful reflection, it finds itself in error. These two currents are definitely in tension, but it is this tension that I think makes TEC unique and critical to the universal church today. It is a creative tension, one where the strength of tradition and the prophetic voice of the Spirit alike both tug on us–we Episcopalians find God pushing us with the hand of tradition even as God pulls us with the hand of progress and critical thought. In other words, for TEC, these two forces are not in conflict, but rather in a dialectical, creative relationship.

What this means for the current controversy, I think, is this: we should make those changes which we feel called to make and we should accept the discipline of our Anglican brothers and sisters. We can endorse both our own understanding of a prophetic call to atone for our homophobic (and transphobic, etc.) past while also accepting that we are members of a worldwide communion of fellow disciples of the Risen One, many of whom do not accept our actions as prophetic but see them as disruptive, myopic, and perhaps even heretical. This is an uncomfortable position–but what else should we expect as worshipers of a crucified man? Jesus never promised his disciples comfort, or an easy life, or even a soothed conscience. He called men and women to speak the Truth as they understood it, but he also himself insisted the the central Truth we had to believe in and live was an absolute respect and love for all others. For most of us in TEC, this of course means demanding full equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters. But let us not also forget that, as Jesus pointed out, it is easy to love those who love us and whom we find lovable (Matt. 5:46-48). We also have to love the Primates who have criticized us and the more conservative Christians in our own nation and even within TEC who find our position problematic. We should speak the Truth as we see it but do so humbly, and prepared to accept that speaking the Truth is rarely easy. Indeed, one sign that one is speaking an important truth is that it should make us and those around us uncomfortable. This was certainly Jesus’ experience as he preached the Good News: to many who heard him preach, it didn’t sound good at all, because He threatened to overturn long-standing traditions and structures of power. (The rich young man of e.g. Mark 10 and the many outraged Pharisees throughout the Gospels come to mind as prime examples.)

But let us remember well that though Jesus spoke the Truth–and did so bluntly–he always announced this Truth as a hopeful promise. The Kingdom is only a threat to those who refuse to see who God really is, and who they themselves really are as God’s creatures. That is to say: Jesus never excluded anyone, but he was honest that certain people fundamentally excluded themselves, if they were unwilling to accept the radicality of His Call. Many of us in TEC might feel that in the 21st century, knowing what we know about human sexuality, to exclude LGBT people from the Church is to fail to love as Christ calls us to. Ultimately, I agree with this. But in doing so, I know that I condemn myself. For I almost never love others as Christ calls me to. True, I do not use someone’s sexual orientation as an excuse to not love–I find other, more acceptable and less controversial excuses. This, too, is a sinful refusal to really understand and live the Kingdom. Likewise, if we erect walls between ourselves and African Anglicans over this issue, we will be failing to love as we are called. Let’s disagree with them, let’s even condemn their position as unworthy of the love Christ calls us to. But let’s never condemn the people who hold those views, however abberant or even hateful we may find them. Let’s admit that we have not played by the very rules we demand others play by. Let’s also publicly and confidently discuss why we feel we had to act regardless. But let’s do all of this with as much humility and love as we can muster. Because living this way is what Christ calls us to do. We call ourselves Christians; let’s try to live up to that name.

So, even as we speak honestly and critique those who have critiqued us, let’s not fall prey to misinformation or insufficiently critical thought. Let’s not demonize those whom we are in conflict with. In short, let’s remember that we are–or, we aspire to be–disciples of Christ. Let’s try to handle this conflict with the ethics and wisdom He has imparted to us. I think our new Presiding Bishop captured our position–in all its discomfort and promise–well in this short message: