It’s been a strange week, waiting to see whether the GAFCON churches would walk out of the Primates’ meeting, listening to the media herald this as the end of the Anglican Communion, wondering what a world without the Anglican Communion would look like… Social media seemed like the best way to keep in touch with what was going on, so I duly followed #Primates2016 but, as is so often the case, Thinking Anglicans was by far the best way to check on actual events as well as their representation in the media. In the end, only one Bishop walked out, but the statement that was issued by the primates is still being studied for its nuances.
At the beginning of the week, what was reported as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech was clearly making a gesture towards the African churches in the comment that ‘for me it was indigenous Kenyan and Ugandan faith, through the Revival’s legacy, that brought me salvation’. Whether this raised the GAFCON churches’ hopes of the ‘repentance’ they were asking for from the Episcopal Church, for having ordained openly gay people and allowing same-sex marriage – or came across as a sop offered before ignoring their call – I don’t know.
And at the end of the week, where are we? GAFCON didn’t get the repentance they asked for. The Episcopal Church are on the naughty step for three years, with their Presiding Bishop Michael Curry producing a moving and articulate statement of the TEC’s way of inclusion as not some capitulation to American culture but the result of a process of engaging with the Bible every bit as valid as the approach taken by their opponents. There’s the usual talk about ‘hurt’, although the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t seem to get it at all. Feeling offended is one thing (we’ve all been there) but if you’re a LGBTI Christian in an African country where your sexuality is criminalised and you can be murdered for it then it’s rather more than ‘hurt’. Why doesn’t the Anglican Communion do more to speak out against these atrocities? The Archbishop of Canterbury has been pulled up already for talking about the hurt to the LGBTI community as if this is a clear entity, and I’d add here that you don’t have to be LGBTI to feel the hurt of these political manoeuvres to feed the GAFCON hunger for repentance. It was always a one-way street: the liberals called to repent of their disregard for something allegedly so clearly laid down in the Bible, but never the traditionalists called to repent of not having thought that the Spirit could move us to full acceptance of same-sex attracted and other Christians who want to live their lives to the full in a way that mirrors God’s abundant and faithful love for all.
So, once again, as the Shared Conversations process so clearly acknowledges, it’s all about how we see the Bible. Traditionalists come across like they have a monopoly on it. But, for the record, I don’t believe any sentence starting ‘The Bible says that…’ is doing justice to the Bible. The Bible isn’t simple and it doesn’t all work at one level. There are poems and chronicles and songs and letters. They come from centuries of cultural change. We’ve always known this and acted on it: most of us don’t treat Deuteronomy or Leviticus on not wearing garments made of mixed fabrics as valid for today. If we treat the Bible as if it’s a list of do/don’t or as a sort of human car manual, we miss out the bigger story: the overall shape of the Bible that tells us about God. It’s like using an iPad as a chopping board – not only does it fail to understand the richness of the thing, it’s also not very effective.
The statement issued at the end of the week includes: ‘In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.’ I appreciate that ‘considered by many of us’: it allows for different views to exist. But what would a Catholic unity look like here? How would it ever be reached?
To me, there are echoes again here of the arguments that surrounded the ordination of women. In 1974 the ‘Philadelphia 11’ were ordained priest, and TEC first regarded this as irregular and invalid. A male priest protesting at the service said ‘God here now as father and judge sees you trying to make stones into bread’. In 1976 TEC’s judgement was changed to irregular but valid. At that time in the Church of England we were told not to rock the ecumenical boat; we must hold back from action because it would end our dialogue with other churches (conveniently, there was less said about how a decision to ordain women would encourage our dialogue with other churches!). I remember someone making the point that, if we were going to maintain dialogue with the Coptic Church, we’d need to stop menstruating women receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. Sometimes, the search for unity shouldn’t be the main driver of our actions. But now we have women as priests, and as bishops. Why is our decision as a province to permit these things any different from the TEC’s decision to ordain openly gay people?
So would a walkout have been better? One of our local bishops, Bishop Alan, wrote at the beginning of this eventful week about the value of staying in the same room:
I once had a phone call, as a Bishop, from someone who had walked out of a church council meeting in high dudgeon, and they’d forgotten that they were actually in their own house. So they found themselves in their front garden at 11 o’clock at night without a key to get back in again. So they phoned the Bishop… I feel rather sorry for that person. When you’ve walked out, what you do next? What are you walking into? Wouldn’t it be better to stay and talk? Jesus brings together heaven and earth — everything reconciled in him, says Paul. Don’t you think we could try that way instead of all the showboating politics and stuff that goes on in the world? I’d like to feel that we could, and I hope and pray that we can this week.
I’m no longer so sure. How do we stay in the room when every instinct is telling us to leave? Hopefully the Shared Conversations, being led by properly trained facilitators, won’t make me want to run away. Meanwhile, just take another look at the official picture of the primates at the top of this post. Racially, considerably more diverse than many of our congregations. But all men, and probably all straight. Do they really understand what they’re talking about here?