Who’s welcome at the table?

Discussion, January 29


In many families, here’s the question that floats over the turkey at the Thanksgiving table:

We may be a family, sharing a common history, but can people with radically different points of view carry on a civilized conversation?  Or do some people shout their strong opinions, trying to drown out their brothers and sisters, while others keep silent or even leave the table?

The same question faces people in small towns (for instance, the sewer issue in Los Osos) and in large nations (in the United States, most issues before Congress).

In the churches of the Anglican Communion, the current argument is over the inclusion – or exclusion – of gays as full members of the church.  The Rev. Gay Jennings (President of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies) comments on the church’s role in the homophobia rising across Africa:

The Anglican primates of Uganda and Nigeria enthusiastically support anti-gay legislation in their countries. I, like them, am a member of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide body of more than 80 million Christians. I am troubled and saddened that fellow Anglicans could support legislation that fails to recognize that every human being is created in the image of God…

Western Christians cannot ignore the homophobia of these church officials or the peril in which they place Ugandan and Nigerian LGBT people. The legacy of colonial-era Christian missionaries and infusions of cash from modern-day American conservatives have helped to create it.…

Along with the Bible, Western missionaries also bequeathed to Africans a literal understanding of how to read it. Today, that literalism continues to encourage fundamentalist interpretation of difficult passages like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Although many scholars in Africa now understand that these passages are properly read in context of the ancient cultures that produced them, people can still fuel grass-roots homophobia by appropriating a handful of biblical texts that seem to vilify gay people.   As a result, Christians who publicly advocate for more historically accurate biblical interpretations and more generous treatment of LGBT people can find themselves jobless, homeless and in grave danger.…

The situation is not hopeless. Across Christian Africa, tools like contextual Bible study, developed in post-apartheid South Africa, provide new ways to read the Bible and what it has to say about sexuality and other central issues in the lives of African Christians. These new readings of old texts encourage Christians to accept LGBT people as God’s children.

Western Christians cannot fix the homophobia that is currently gripping Nigeria, Uganda, or other African countries. We can, however, stand in solidarity with progressive Africans and support their efforts to teach new ways of interpreting the Bible and understanding sexuality. When we see human rights abuses, we can speak out.

And most of all, we can acknowledge with humility that we bear our share of the responsibility for this tragic legacy of empire and insist on repudiating contemporary efforts to expand its reach.

(Jennings’ complete commentary can be read here.)

How did we get to this point?

In her presentation on Thursday, Caro Hall reviewed some of the history leading to the current boiling point in the conversation around the world-wide Anglican table.

2003 Gene Robinson was elected Bishop by the Diocese of New Hampshire.  Since his election took place just before General Convention, it would need to be approved at Convention itself (rather than through letters signed by every diocesan Standing Committee). This brought Robinson’s election into wide public debate in the Episcopal Church and in the world-wide Anglican Communion.  There was great pressure – within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion – for General Convention not to confirm Robinson’s election.

Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC),  took seriously his role as an ‘Instrument of Union’ – that is, to keep the member churches of the Anglican Communion together in a time of rising conflict. So when he was told that in order to get the support of archbishops from the conservative south he needed to support the Lambeth Resolution which declared homosexuality incompatible with scripture, he declared it the “standard of teaching” in the Anglican Communion.

The Anglican Communion has 38 provinces or member churches, which are linked in a network of relationships rather than a formal organization with binding authority.  Most provinces grew out of missionary activity from the Church of England, especially in former British colonies. Since the 19th century, this network of relationships had been kept alive by missionaries, bishops, and other personal connections.  Decisions made in this Communion are not binding in any legal way, because each church is autonomous.

The cohesion of the Anglican Communion had already been severely tested by the ordination of women; dissension about this led to the creation of the Virginia Report presented to Lambeth in 1998.  The Virginia Report tried to outline a structure that would work, using three guiding principles: interdependence (building and maintaining relationships); accountability (taking responsibility for decisions and actions); and subsidarity (making decisions at the lowest level possible).

Can the election of a gay bishop – or the blessing of gay relationships – be made at the lowest level possible, a single diocese?  Or is this an issue so important that it needs to be addressed by the whole Communion?

And it was not only Gene Robinson’s election in an American diocese; in the same time period, Jeffrey Johns (a celibate but partnered gay priest) was appointed as bishop of an English diocese, and the Canadian diocese of New Westminster sanctioned a rite for blessing gays in committed relationships.

When General Convention confirmed Robinson’s election despite all the warnings, the new ABC said it would “inevitably have a significant impact on the Anglican Communion throughout the world and it is too early to say what the result of that will be… it is my hope that the church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irrevocable decisions are made in response.”

The loose agreement that had existed between member churches of the Anglican Communion was not strong enough to withstand such significant conflict.  And so, when Robinson was ordained bishop, the ABC called an “emergency” Primates Meeting. This led to the creation of a Commission which struggled with the question of how a transnational network can make decisions. The Windsor Report concluded that Robinson’s consecration violated the unifying principles recommended by the Virginia Report:

Interrelationship:  by proceeding with the consecration of Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church had “broken the bonds of affection”.

Subsidarity:  Such action was too important to be made at a diocesan, or provincial level.

Accountability:   Member churches or provinces which take such actions must be held accountable to the whole Communion.

The Windsor Report recommended creating a boundary around the Anglican Communion by establishing an Anglican Covenant, with authority held by the Primates Meeting.  It also recommended that the Episcopal Church be suspended from the Anglican Communion, and refrain from ordaining gay bishops and public blessings.

Over the next several years, attempts made to bring people together.  The bishops of the Episcopal Church, under pressure, agreed not to ordain any bishops until a final decision was made.  However, conservatives were increasingly frustrated.

And then in 2006, at the next General Convention, Katherine Jefferts Schori – a woman, and a known liberal who had approved gay blessings in her own diocese – was elected the new Presiding Bishop.

In the last action of General Convention, under pressure from the retiring and new Presiding Bishops (and possibly the ABC as well), deputies agreed not to confirm anyone as bishop “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and would lead to further strains on communion.”  While seen as a significant and painful concession by liberals, conservatives were not satisfied, declaring they would ask the ABC for alternative primatial oversight (rejecting the oversight of the new Presiding Bishop, they would be governed by other bishops from the Anglican Communion.

How can we keep this family at the table?

The arguments around the Anglican table are rooted in two historical issues:  colonialism and liberalism.

Colonialism:   English and American missionaries took Christianity to other countries as part of their nations’ colonial expansion.  The resulting Anglican Communion is still Anglo-centric in its history and structure, and even its financing.  This still makes it difficult for African and Asian bishops to feel that they are fully recognized; their churches are dependent on western financial aid and invitations and often the agendas are usually controlled by London.  Africans also can see American and European trade, media and advertising as a new imperialism, threatening their traditional ways of life.

Bishops can be seen to be more powerful if they stand up to the Anglican Communion as the instrument of the white oppressors.  Robert Mugabe (president of Zimbabwe, in power for 34 years) verbalized this dynamic by saying, “We of Africa protest that, in this day and age, we should continue to be treated as lesser human beings than other races.”   Mugabe also started to use the idea that homosexuality is a white man’s disease as a way to define the boundary between Africa and the neo-imperialists.   Unfortunately, when Africans drew a line in the sand over homosexuality, this opened them up to alliances (exploitation?) conservative Americans with the same agenda.

Liberalism:  ‘Liberal’ has many meanings.  Originally, the term referred to a political system which allows and respects different viewpoints, allowing individuals to live their own lives and profess their own points of view.  Originally, the Anglican Communion was ‘liberal’ as defined above – a trans-national network that allowed different points of view.  But increasingly, conservatives are pushing for an overarching and more hierarchical organization – with stricter boundaries governing who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out,’ and leaders expected to guard the boundaries.

Can we keep this family at the table?



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>