Just when you thought the travails of the Episcopal Church in the United States (known as TEC) over issues of sexuality had settled down or gone underground, a group of leaders of Anglican bodies around the world met in Canterbury, England, and issued a communiqué “requiring” TEC not to participate in decision-making roles on ecumenical or internal committees of the Anglican Communion for a period of three years.
The communiqué immediately generated a host of responses, mostly negative, from the press and more progressive members of TEC, and some tepid support from conservatives. But as Andrew McGowan, a professor at Yale’s Berkeley Divinity School, put it in a trenchant essay, the headlines got it mostly wrong.
The way the story was first reported, it appeared that the Anglican Communion, of which TEC is a member, had suspended TEC for three years from the Communion. See, for example, Laurie Goodstein and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura’s January 14 piece in the New York Times January 14, “Anglican Church Disciplines U.S. Episcopals Over Gay Marriages.” This was incorrect in a number of ways (quite apart from the misnomer “Episcopals”).
First, the Anglican Communion is not a church or ecclesial body with a clear polity and lines of authority. It is a voluntary fellowship or a community or an occasionally dysfunctional family consisting of a number (38 at the moment) of regional and national churches or provinces. It exists because of the British Empire, whose colonial endeavors are in many ways coming back to haunt it.
Church of England missionaries emphasized the importance of the Bible to the colonized populations of Africa and other parts of what is now called the Global South. Now biblical literalism, especially with respect to matters of sexuality, is in the name of orthodoxy being turned back upon the more liberal churches in the Global North that have gone the furthest in recognizing the validity of same-sex marriages, women’s ordination to the priesthood and the episcopate, and gay and lesbian clergy.
Each constituent member of the Communion has what’s quaintly known in-house as a Primate – a presiding bishop or archbishop elected from within it. These Primates represent the unity of their respective provinces and in some cases may exercise authority over them. But collectively they have no authority to dictate to the Communion as a whole. Indeed, the Communion as such has no authority to suspend any group or provincial church affiliated with it.
The provinces constitute a symbolic whole because they recognize the importance of four so-called “instruments” of communion or unity.
The first of these instruments is the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury (the ABC), which goes back to the beginning of the Church of England in the 16th century. It is ironic that in a post-colonial world, allegiance to the ABC – juridically merely one Primate among many – is to an office that depends for its legitimacy on the British monarchy. No clearly worked theology justifying the ABC’s primacy, except for its chronological priority, has ever appeared. Nevertheless, the provinces agree to remain in unity or at least communication with him and his successors.
The ABC has the right to invite all bishops in all the provinces (and the right to dis-invite them, as ABC Rowan Williams did to Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be called to the episcopate in 2003) to gather roughly every 10 years in the UK at what are called Lambeth Conferences, the second instrument of unity. The Primates’ meeting in conferences and speaking in non-binding ways on matters of faith and morality constitutes the third instrument of unity. This, in effect, is what the Primates attempted to employ with their communiqué.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the fourth instrument of unity or communion is the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the only body that includes priests and lay persons as well as bishops. It and it alone has the power to appoint the members of the various committees that do the Communion’s ongoing work.
It is not clear at this time what response the ACC will give to the communiqué’s “requirement” for suspending TEC from these committees. It is already the case that, out of deference to the sentiments of more conservative members, TEC has voluntarily withdrawn from some internal and interfaith committees that tend to deal with issues of sexuality and marriage.
Under the circumstances, and assuming that it remains committed to keeping the Communion together, the ACC is unlikely to appoint any TEC members to internal or interfaith committees. But it appears to be holding its cards close to its collective vest until it decides what to do when it meets in April.
The point is that the Primates cannot require TEC not to participate in internal committees. An Anglican canon lawyer, Norman Doe, director of the Centre for Law and Religion at Cardiff University, stated emphatically that the Primates’ action represented “completely unacceptable interference” with the autonomy of the other Anglican Communion bodies to whom it presumably had addressed its requirement. “I find it utterly extraordinary,” Doe told the Anglican newspaper Church Times January 19. “No instrument exists conferring upon the Primates’ meeting the jurisdiction to ‘require’ these things…Whatever they require is unenforceable.”
The Primates’ communiqué may carry moral weight for some but it is not juridical or dispositive. Indeed, there is no instrument of communion or any combination of them that can suspend TEC from either the Communion or its committees.
The ABC might choose not to invite TEC’s presiding bishop to the next Primates’ Conference, or any of its bishops to the decennial Lambeth Conference, though it is unlikely that the current ABC, Justin Welby, will use his discretionary power to do either of those things.
In a generally positive response to the Primates’ communiqué, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a self-constituted group of conservative Anglican leaders, acknowledged with regret the lack of authority in the instruments of communion. “This action must not be seen as an end, but as a beginning,” the GAFCON leaders said a letter.
The GAFCON letter expressed concern that the Anglican Church of Canada (ACoC) had also “rejected the collegial mind of the Communion by unilaterally permitting the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of those in active homosexual relationships.” It went on to criticize the American and Canadian provinces’ “persistent rejection of biblical and apostolic faith,” declaring that the signatories were “disappointed that the Primates’ statement makes no reference to the need for repentance.”
Rooting their concerns in the issue of biblical authority, the conservatives use the misleading term “doctrine” to refer to what is or has been a traditional teaching on marriage as being between one man and one woman. Since teachings on marriage appear in no ecumenical creed adopted by the Christian churches, it would be odd to consider them as reaching the same level of doctrinal importance as the nature of Jesus or of the Trinity.
Again, perhaps disingenuously, conservative voices focus on homosexual relationships, about which Jesus said nothing, and tend to ignore divorce, which he explicitly forbade. Few Anglican conservatives have pursued an anti-divorce agenda recommending punishment and suspension from the Eucharist for divorced persons. (On selective outrage see Jonathan Merritt’s piece in the Atlantic).
One might also ask if some Primates are doing all they can in some African countries to stop attempts to legislate against and harshly punish gay relationships, regardless of their views on gay marriage. Even conservative Christian churches have always (in theory) welcomed homosexual persons without condoning their sexual behavior.
Allowing the law to punish persons simply for being gay is unjust and the conservatives should be as outraged by such laws as anyone else. Ecclesiastical condemnation of gay sex cannot justify its criminalization.
TEC’s response to the Primates’ communiqué has been typical of those provinces committed to a more progressive agenda. Its Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, out of his own experience as an African-American, was particularly eloquent on the pain that has been and continues to be inflicted on LGBTQ members of the churches in the Communion.
The communiqué speaks of strains and a legacy of hurt but its concern appears to be restricted to those aggrieved by the actions of TEC in moving toward approval of liturgical rites solemnizing gay marriages. There is little if any acknowledgement of the pain and suffering inflicted on gay persons by those who refuse to recognize their full human dignity and eligibility for all aspects of the church’s ministry, including marriage and election to clerical office.
ABC Justin Welby himself apologized to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for the hurt they have experienced in the Anglican Communion over the years. It’s not clear what force this apology will have but it goes far beyond the antiseptic institutional language of the communiqué and suggests he is not in sympathy with its “requirement.”
Given the Communion’s non-authoritative anti-structure, what does all this mean for the future, and especially for TEC and Canada, both of which have chosen to continue to develop same-sex marriage rites and to affirm other actions supportive of LGBTQ persons?
Clearly, progressives can continue to expose the juridical hollowness of the actions of those members of the Communion who have sought to discipline other members with whom they disagree. They can insist that, if as conservative themselves claim, fellowship among the various provinces is a good thing, then the Communion should be able to find ways to nurture it by avoiding non-authoritative exclusionary actions against those who disagree on non-doctrinal issues.
Meanwhile, those who want the Communion to continue can work on developing relationships among various provinces, congregations, and individuals. Abandoning the quasi-, or faux, structures of the Communion, they can focus instead on direct practices of fellowship and relationship, including financial support for impoverished parishes and joint efforts to address racial injustice and systemic economic oppression.
That was the approach advocated by Bishop Curry, who in a statement immediately following the release of the communiqué called the Communion “a network of relationships that have been built on mission partnerships; relationships that are grounded in a common faith; relationships in companion diocese relationships; relationships with parish to parish across the world; relationships that are profoundly committed to serving and following the way of Jesus of Nazareth by helping the poorest of the poor, and helping this world to be a place where no child goes to bed hungry ever.”
In other words, let the Primates continue to meet at their pleasure and issue moral reflections if they so desire. Let the historical role of the ABC be commemorated at regular intervals by ceremonies in the UK to which representatives from the provinces are invited. Let the ABC have as many Lambeth conferences as he and the provinces can afford and let those conferences be times of fellowship and conviviality at which the real relationships that sustain the Communion do their work.
If the Communion never has been an authoritative structure, nothing can keep its members from reaching out to others to heal, mend, and restore justice to those who are suffering and oppressed. If these acts are undertaken, then the ABC’s apology to the LGBT community will not have been in vain.