Although a number of important issues including religious violence and global climate change were addressed, the Meeting of the Anglican Primates 2016 held in Canterbury this past week will be remembered primarily for actions taken against The Episcopal Church. According to the official communiqué issued at the conclusion of the Primates’ Meeting, The Episcopal Church is to be sanctioned for its decisions this past summer to change the marriage canons and to permit the marriage of gay and lesbian persons (the Archbishop of Canterbury insists these are “consequences,” not “sanctions” but few could argue that they are not intended to be punitive). An agreement passed by the majority of the 38 Primates meeting this past week details the objections the Primates have with The Episcopal Church’s actions at the 78th General Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah as well as the “consequences” for The Episcopal Church resulting from these actions.
A majority of the Primates are demanding that “for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent [the Anglican Communion] on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal [Anglican Communion] standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, [The Episcopal Church] will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”
In addition, the Primates have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Force to “maintain a conversation among ourselves with the intention of the restoration of relationships, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognizing the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.”
It is important to note that characterizations of the Primates’ vote as a “suspension of the Episcopal Church” which appeared in the popular press are grossly overstated. The Communique was clear that the unanimous decision and desire of the Primates is “to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ.” As Dean Andrew McGowan of Berkeley Divinity School stated in an excellent analysis of the Primates’ Meeting, “the Episcopal Church has not been suspended from or by the Anglican Communion.” McGowan writes, “…let us not imagine that these events make TEC ‘second class Anglicans,’ let alone that they remove TEC members from the Communion in any way. They should have little impact on how members of TEC see themselves as part of a wider Communion, a community of Churches with a common history and with an extraordinary scope and richness.”
In the communique the Primates “condemned homophobic prejudice and violence” and expressed their resolve to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation.” They have made similar statements before. Despite these statements, the conversation about LGBT persons in the church is often hostile and hurtful. Draconian laws in parts of the world foster an environment in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are frequently harassed and persecuted, leading to violence, imprisonment, brutality and sometimes death. Sadly, some Primates and other church leaders in these regions have been vocal in their support of harsh laws and policies against gay and lesbian persons.
Once more, it appears the Primates’ Meeting makes statements of care and support on the one hand, while punishing The Episcopal Church on the other. It obscures widespread oppression and persecution of gay and lesbian persons and the violence done against them around the world with a concern about “unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity.” I find this incompatible with the baptismal demands that we “seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as our self” and that we “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”
I take heart, however, from the words of Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, who addressed the Primates before they voted on their statement, saying to them:
“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome….Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”
According to the Episcopal News Service, Presiding Bishop Curry told the Primates, “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain. The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything.”
He concluded, “I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.” (Read it all here).
While I believe it was not a great week for the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion or Christianity, I support our Presiding Bishop and commit myself to “walking together” with all others in the Anglican Communion even as I, and we as a church, continue to uphold the full dignity and place of our LGBT brothers and sisters in the life of the Church. So let us persist in love and “take the lower seat,” (Luke 14:12) “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2) Let us “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and live into the servanthood to which Jesus calls us, partnering with those Anglicans around the world who recognize that “the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21). We all need one another.
In the end, more than formal structures, the Anglican Communion is a network of relationships. Even with the steps taken by the Primates, congregations and dioceses of The Episcopal Church will continue to have warm, transforming relationships with Anglicans in all parts of the world. We in the Diocese of New Jersey enjoy such relationships with our companion dioceses of Ecuador Central and Ecuador Littoral and, through our missionary Charlie Nakash, with the Diocese of the Dominican Republic. These relationships bless us all.
The Right Reverend William H. (Chip) Stokes, D.D.
XII Bishop of New Jersey