Friday, January 15, 2016

Anglican Communion Sanctions Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop of ECUSA Responds: Commitment to Be an Inclusive Church Based on Outstretched Arms of Jesus on the Cross

As Chris Morley has reported to us in several comments, at its Primates 2016 meeting in Canterbury, the Anglican Communion chose yesterday to sanction the Episcopal Church USA for supporting same-sex marriage. For Episcopal News Service, Matthew Davies reports what the presiding bishop of ECUSA, Michael Curry, told his fellow bishops as they moved towards sanctioning ECUSA for supporting LGBT people and their rights:

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. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: "All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ."
For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain. For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.

And then he went on to observe that he understands the pain of people who experience oppression — including the pain of his fellow Anglicans who resent ECUSA's welcome of LGBT people and see this welcome as a betrayal of the gospel— because his own family history is rooted in slavery, in the experience of having been enslaved. 

In a reflection in The Guardian yesterday about the Primates 2016 meeting, Giles Fraser notes that while the leaders of the Anglican Communion were locked in their "undignified death match about homosexuality" in Cambridge, fifty miles away in London John Cunningham and John Johnston were being married by the pastor of the Dutch Church in London, a church granted a charter by Edward VI in 1550 to practice its own version of Anglicanism (Dutch style) to practice its Dutch Reformed faith without disturbance and vexation from the primates of the English church.*

Fraser's assessment of the decision of Primates 2016 to sanction ECUSA for loving the gays:

But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter. The Anglican church is only nominally a top-down organisation. What matters most is what happens on the ground. And on the ground, in pews across England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Brazil, Korea, Japan and the US, the movement towards marriage equality is inexorable. Whatever piece of paper Justin Welby emerges with, it won’t hold back the tide of history. The best the conservatives can hope for is a few speed bumps.

This cat is already out of the bag. Too many people in the developed sector of the world now know and love LGBT family members, friends, and co-workers to permit their cultures easily to work their way backwards to an age in which LGBT human beings were stigmatized and demonized. That demonization requires an ignorance of LGBT humanity that is simply no longer there in the developed part of the planet. It requires, unfortunately, the kind of ignorance exhibited by too many Christians in the developing part of the world who imagine they have never met an LGBT person — and if they did meet one of those people, they'd certainly find him or her abhorrent, they imagine.

As Giles Fraser concludes,

Whatever the prince bishops of Uganda and Nigeria think, they fundamentally misunderstand English Christianity if they believe they can bully us into their own reading of scripture. What I find in the Bible is a gradually expanding consciousness that God is love and not an instrument of oppression. And there is always more of that inclusive love to discover. So congratulations to John and John. You are why the reformation of the church in England remains a work-in-progress.

The action taken by Primates 2616 will cause pain. It will embolden those Episcopalians in the U.S. allied with right-wing evangelicals intent on communicating to LGBT human beings that they are second-class citizens of church and world who should have the decency to live in shame. The emboldening of this wing of ECUSA will translate into some more ugly actions within select Episcopal parishes in the U.S. to demonstrate to LGBT people that they are not wanted and loved.

But these gestures will not carry the day, no matter how much the primates of Uganda and Nigeria hope for them to have such effect. For the large majority of Episcopalians, these unseemly battles are now a thing of the past, over and done with, and a decision has been made for the church to live together harmoniously — inclusively and with open welcome of LGBT members — as it confronts these issues. If anything, the action taken by Primates 2016 will only serve to embolden increasing numbers of Episcopalians who are determined not to allow angi-gay, misogynistic bigots, albeit ones carrying croziers and wearing silk robes, to define what Christianity means for them in the 21st century.

Giles Fraser is right, I think, to see the tug-of-war going on between Anglicans today about the issue of welcoming and affirming LGBT people as a continuation of an historic reformation process in which "there is always more of that inclusive love to discover." American Christians lived through a similar tug of war in the 19th century in which some Christians were as adamant in their belief that they stood for rock-solid biblical truth and unchangeable tradition as are those Christians today who resist the full inclusion of LGBT people in church and society as they quote the bible and point to tradition as their warrant for resistance.

Those American Christians, who happened to be defending slavery, pointed out over and over again (and they were correct about this) that there had been an unbroken tradition of support for the practice of slavery over the course of almost two millennia of Christian history. They also noted that this tradition rooted itself in millennia of unbroken tradition of support for slavery in Christianity's parent religion of Judaism. "We are simply standing for what the church has always believed," they maintained.

And they were right in asserting this, just as they were right in brandishing their bibles and pointing to the many passages in both Jewish and Christian scripture which take for granted and bless the practice of slavery. Just as African Christians today, with strong encouragment from the right-wing evangelical wing of the Christian churches in North America and elsewhere, seek to do as they try to beat back the rising historical tide of respect for the humanity of LGBT persons. . . .

Fortunately, in this historic battle in the U.S., it was the ongoing-reformation version of the Christian faith, with its insistence that the scriptures are not an instrument of oppression but witness to the gradually expanding consciousness that God is love, which prevailed. Fortunately, it was the deep instinct implanted in the American Christian mind with John Robinson's insistence that there is yet more light and truth to break forth from God's holy Word that prevailed in the American Christian debate about slavery: "There is always more of that inclusive love to discover."

And, though the battles remain fierce, I have no doubt at all that this same instinct will eventually prevail in the Anglican Communion and other churches that have torn themselves apart over the question of loving and affirming LGBT human beings.

* Thanks to Chris Morley for pointing out that I had erroneously read Giles Fraser to be saying that the Austin Friars Dutch church was within the Anglican Communion, when it's actually a Dutch Reformed church.

The graphic is the earliest extant depiction of the cruxifixion of Jesus in an illuminated manuscript, from the Syriac Rabbula gospels (586 CE), by way of Wikimedia Commons.

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