Bishop of Indianapolis responds to the Canterbury primates communique

Here in the United States it took us decades to learn to have rational conversations about issues such as alcoholism, HIV/AIDS, and smoking, not that we have universal agreement about them. We still struggle mightily to have constructive conversation about mental illness, environmental stewardship, and gun control.

You may have learned that the Primates of the Anglican Communion, gathered in Canterbury for a time of prayer and conversation, have made a statement concerning participation of The Episcopal Church (TEC) at official levels of the Communion for the next three years.  This is a response to the actions of our General Convention last summer to provide an official liturgy for the marriage of gay persons in the Church, and the distance this has created between us and other parts of the Communion.

I quote the pertinent section of their communiqué here:

“It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal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.

“We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, 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.

“These recommendations were adopted by the majority of the Primates present.”

Though they use the language of ‘requirement,’  the Primates do not have the authority to make decisions about the entire Communion, any more than does the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC), or the Lambeth Conference of bishops.  They are stating what would make it possible for some of them, as individuals, to continue in a period of continuing engagement with TEC.

The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) is the closest thing the Anglican Communion has to an authoritative body, and they have acted in the past to restrict our participation in their work, but that was also a temporary action.  In very practical terms it seems unlikely that the members of the ACC, who come from all the Provinces of the Communion, would take substantially different positions from their Primates, except, perhaps, to opine that they had not gone far enough by ‘sidelining’ us for a time rather than calling for complete expulsion. That only one Archbishop left the meeting early over this issue is encouraging.

Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Rev’d Michael Curry, has issued a statement suggesting that as painful as this development is, we might choose to embrace the ‘high calling’ of walking with those who differ with us for the ultimate good of the whole Communion. He reminds us that ‘we are Jesus people’ and that our call is to share with the world the Good News that God accepts and loves all people, and carrying that message is not always easy, and often takes more time than anyone would like.

Anyone who has worked in the civil rights and women’s rights movements knows the truth of that. It is no different with regard to the LBGTQ community – and that’s here at home!  That we occupy a place which others around the world cannot embrace should not surprise us. We are equally incapable of embracing the cultures and contexts of others. Our world view, our experiences, and our insistence on individual freedoms are not shared by the whole world. This does not automatically make either “us” or “them” right or wrong about everything.

The pains of this time are many and complicated.  In TEC we have known for decades that even engaging in conversation about a new understanding of sexuality and marriage was unacceptable to many of our members. Not having the conversation was unacceptable to many others. Suggesting that current understandings might be incomplete was an offense to some, and suggesting that no new understanding was legitimate was an offense to others.

We have experienced this same tension where certainties about slavery and the full equality of all persons was concerned – and we still have not reached the point at which the automatic assumptions and preferences which contribute to institutionalized racism have been identified  – let alone eradicated.

We have experienced ongoing tension where the full participation of women in the legal, political, and religious lives of Americans is concerned. We experience considerable, ongoing tension within the Anglican Communion where the remarriage of divorced persons is concerned.

Here in the United States it took us decades to learn to have rational conversations about issues such as alcoholism, HIV/AIDS, and smoking, not that we have universal agreement about them. We still struggle mightily to have constructive conversation about mental illness, environmental stewardship, and gun control.

And for members of TEC, there’s the Anglican “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  The enterprises of interpreting scripture, reflecting on and integrating knowledge and insight gained from other sources, and theologizing about God’s presence and will in our lives, is always influenced by the cultural, societal, and religious backgrounds of the people engaged in them. It was so in the earliest church, and it remains so today.

What is clear is that every group, every individual, who cherishes our sacred writings, picks and chooses which of them to emphasize and which to set aside. There are none among us in TEC, none in the Anglican Communion, or the Church universal who even claim to follow every precept of the Bible literally.  All make decisions about the priority of some passages over others, and many of those choices are influenced completely by whatever undergirds the status quo in a particular culture or context.  Suggestions that scripture may actually be challenging the status quo, or that prior interpretations were inaccurate or incomplete, has often been met with both heated denial and violent repudiation. The persecutions of Galileo and Copernicus come to mind….

We have learned that it is new experience which is often the catalyst for conversion – experience which can only be gained by putting ourselves in the position to share who we are and how our thoughts have been shaped, to learn who others are, and to find in that exchange an expanded understanding of each other, the world, and our faith. This understanding does not always lead to agreement, but it can often contribute to a determination to find greater common ground, a desire to go deeper in our search for truth, and a reluctance to walk away from each other.  We must, in all humility, acknowledge that we all may have some things to learn…..

The Primates’ communiqué claims a unanimous desire to remain engaged even in the midst of very troubling disagreement, and we must make the very best advantage of that. They included in their conversations a condemnation of mistreatment and punishment of persons of homosexual orientation. They did not unanimously ask that TEC be expelled from the Anglican Communion.  They did not call for official inclusion of those who have walked away from TEC – though some of them were present as observers.  And we must humbly acknowledge that their measured approach may well be the result of the fact that some who disagree with the official actions of TEC have chosen not to walk away from us, but rather to remain engaged for the sake of the whole Church.  We must also stay engaged if we hope to have any influence on eventual outcomes.

Some of the communiqué is open to interpretation, though it seems clear many of the Primates are not willing to be represented by us in official dialogues with other Churches and religious bodies, though they do not seem to call for immediate resignation or replacement.

What will happen with Partner relationships between and among dioceses is yet to be seen, and will certainly be a Province by Province or Diocese by Diocese decision.  My intention and hope is that our partnerships will continue during and beyond this three year period. Please continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Bor and Brasilia, and for the people of St. André parish in Haiti.  Bishop Curry reminds us that the Anglican Communion is a “network of relationships built on mission partnerships,” and we can continue to nurture those connections and engage in that shared mission.

Some have suggested that TEC should begin withholding financial support to the rest of the Communion, an approach I do not endorse.  We know perfectly well that ability to pay the bills does not make a person (or a church) correct.  Anyone who has ever had to deal with an opinionated pledger who insists on having his or her way knows all about this!  Faithful stewardship is about ensuring that the resources entrusted to us by God are used to benefit all who need them, including those we think are dead wrong about religion, and including financial resources.  The parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind….

It is always true, no matter the circumstance, that what is most important is what we do next. What is most important is not what others decide to do, but what we decide to do….and the right thing to do is to remember that Jesus did not command us to agree.  He commanded us to love each other as he loves us, and that means with sacrificial, incarnational love.  For the sake of our own souls, and for the Gospel, let it be so.

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