Will The Anglican Communion Tear Itself Apart Over LGBT Issues?

In Depth

I grew up Roman Catholic. Yet, two years ago, I left communion with Rome after Pope Benedict XVI called same-sex marriage the most significant threat to Western civilisation in the world today. I turned to the Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican Communion, as my new spiritual home. But I fear that home will fall, divided over LGBT issues.

The Episcopal Church in the United States has been leading the charge for decades within the communion. It has seen the ordination of women as deacons, as priests, and as bishops. Members of the Episcopalian clergy are not barred from marriage and on the issue of LGBT members of the community, it has been generally unsurpassed in its level of inclusion:

In 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church declared that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” …In 2003, the first openly gay bishop was consecrated; in 2009, General Convention resolved that God’s call is open to all; and in 2012, a provisional rite of blessing for same-gender relationships was authorized, and discrimination against transgender persons in the ordination process was officially prohibited.

Not everyone has been pleased with these events, nor the string of controversies within the founding Church within the Anglican Communion: the Church of England. With the recent marriage law change in England and Wales, the Church of England cannot perform same-sex marriage ceremonies (the Church in Wales can “opt-in” by going through a special process), but can bestow a special “blessing” on same-sex couples who choose to be married elsewhere, despite teachings in the Church which define marriage as between a man and a woman. Further, such couples would be banned from ordination and current members of the priesthood are banned from marrying a same-sex partner.

Already this decision is being openly protested and ignored. Canon Jeremy Pemberton, a hospital chaplain, is the first to defy the Church of England’s ban on same-sex marriage among the clergy. He wed his long-term partner Laurence Cunnington on Saturday afternoon. This is being viewed by some as a “crisis” within the Church.

Pemberton is known already for making waves, having earlier this year sent a letter to the Telegraph newspaper reading in part:

Until the Church of England allows clergy to solemnise same-sex marriages in our churches, as a matter of pastoral response those of us who are priests will counsel lesbian and gay members of our congregations to marry in those churches willing to celebrate faithful same-sex relationships.

And that’s not all. Recently, the first openly gay bishop in Christiandom, Bishop Gene Robinson, lambasted Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby for comments he saw as appeasement of anti-LGBT elements in African countries. Bishop Robinson said he was surprised that Welby, a man whom he believed to be a good choice for the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, would make such statements.

Welby was referring to violence against Christians in Africa that the perpetrators have justified in connection with supposedly gay-friendly activities by the Anglican churches in the United States and Canada…it was not the caller who brought up Africa, but Archbishop Welby himself, arguing that such considerations were relevant to the Church of England’s lack of support for marriage equality. It was the Archbishop himself who linked this caller’s question to the situation in Africa…Archbishop Welby would have done well to put the blame directly where it belongs—on the murderers themselves—instead of insinuating that indeed, Anglicans working for LGBT rights elsewhere “caused” this atrocity.

So what should Archbishop Welby have said? Well, I for one think he should have used his authority and prestige to publicly say he disagreed with conservative members of the Anglican clergy and pledge to work for reform of the Church… But he didn’t do that. What does Bishop Robinson think the Archbishop should have done?

So how might the Archbishop have responded differently? Perhaps something like this: “Look, the church must consider many things in discerning whether a change is warranted in our consideration of blessing the marriages of same-sex couples: what scriptures says, how the church’s historical understanding has developed, and our own experience of gay couples’ relationships. We are in the midst of that discernment right now. In addition, we must always be aware that our decisions here in England are being watched by the world’s 80 million Anglicans and their enemies; sometimes being used as an irrational and unwarranted excuse by those enemies for violence against Christians. I have seen the graves of those who have suffered because of these unjust and irrational connections between LGBT people and murder, and it breaks my heart.
Even so, we cannot give in to the violent acts of bullies and must discern and then pursue God’s will for all of God’s children. Violence and murder of Christians is deplorable, but so is violence against and murder of LGBT people. And as the spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, permit me to point out, it is not helpful for some of our own Anglican archbishops, bishops and clergy to join in support of anti-gay legislation and rhetoric in their own countries, thereby fueling the hatred and violence against innocent LGBT people, who are being criminalized and murdered for who they are. These are complicated issues, and with God’s guidance, we will discern what is right to say and do.”

The “Protestant, yet Catholic” Anglican Communion has always been just a bit different. After Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome, the Church of England was labeled as protestant and heretical. Only later would Rome see fit, by the Canon Law, to acknowledge the Anglican Communion as “separated brethren,” Catholic, and properly Apostolic, but out of communion with Rome and therefore in error. Roman Catholics are allowed to attend services and receive sacraments in Anglican parishes.

I went to Catholic school. I was baptised, I had my first communion, and I was finally confirmed in the Church at 19. Ritual is extremely important to me. The liturgy of the mass is important. I have a series of beliefs that clearly make me Catholic which leave me few options after a break with Rome. I found a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church because I could continue to “make a joyful noise” in the way I was most comfortable without having to be part of a community which refused to treat me with kindness and dignity—if they even recognised my existence at all. Indeed, I am sad to say that in my own explorations of my faith, I have personally witnessed conservative churches leave the Anglican Communion and rejoin Rome. And why? Either because of a refusal to allow women to participate or a denial of the basic human dignity of LGBT persons.

The churches of the Anglican Communion, in England, in America, in Japan and elsewhere, have always had one foot in the future and one foot in the past, forever attempting to balance the two while maintaining the concept of the three-legged stool approach to theological questions: faith, scripture, and reason. Forget to consider any of the three, and the stool falls over. If something is unreasonable, one should not use faith or scripture, or even the two together, in order to assure its support and dominance. It is a denial of our human capacity to reason and rationalise. If a creator does exist, surely that creator placed within us that capacity to be used and not denied. In religion today, regardless of what our religion is, we have too much faith, too much scripture, and not nearly enough reason.

We use blind faith and unwavering adherence to scripture to justify the unreasonable, and people end up hurt. The very opposite of what the vast majority of human religions teach: love. Look to your reason, Anglicans. Look to your reason, Bishops. Look to your reason, Archbishop of Canterbury Welby. Would Jesus really want you to take your faith in Him and the words He has said and hurt any of His children? If that seems unreasonable to you, then perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that discrimination against LGBT members of the Church, laypersons or clergy, can no more stand than a two legged stool.

Image via Getty.

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