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The Primates' Meeting - good or bad?

The Primates' Meeting - good or bad?
Published by Giles Goddard on Sat, 16 Jan 2016 12:24
Vicar's Blog

“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.”

These are the words of Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA (TEC), speaking after TEC had been excluded from full participation in the Anglican Communion by the Primates meeting in Canterbury last week. Bishop Michael is black, the descendant of slaves, and was elected with great acclaim to lead the Episcopal Church last year.

Many of us are deeply disappointed by the outcome of the Primates' meeting. Not because we do not believe that the Anglican Communion should be, if at all possible, unified - of course we do - but because the statement issued seems, at first reading, to be a simple reiteration of the traditional position, a backward step, and the sanctions applied to TEC simply seem to confirm that.

The Archbishop of Canterbury went some way towards acknowledging this when he apologised, on Friday, for the hurt and pain caused by the Church. He said "For me it's a constant source of deep sadness, the number of people who are persecuted for their sexuality. I don't have the right to speak for everyone. I wanted to take this opportunity to say how sorry I am for the hurt and pain, in the past and present, the Church has caused... I think the worst of that is that it causes people to doubt that they are loved by God ... and I want to say how sorry I am about that."

The trouble is that an apology feels like cold comfort when the instrument of exclusion - the Anglican Communion - shows no sign of changing. A bit like a father saying to his children, as he punishes them, "This hurts me more than it hurts you."

But as ever the reality is more complicated than it appears on the surface. One of the key lessons I learned at seminary is that the difficult ethical choices are not the choices between good and bad - those sorts of decisions are, usually, simple. The difficult ones are the choices between two goods. In this case we have two good things. First, the global unity of the Anglican Communion, which can, sometimes, speak truth to power, and does, sometimes - often - stand up for those who are poor and marginal and suffering in this world. And second, the radical call of the Gospel to bring about God's kingdom which is, beyond doubt, a place where EVERYONE is welcome - as a result of which, there have been great struggles over centuries to make that welcome a reality, for slaves, for women, for people with disabilities, for LGBTI people, and for many more.

The Anglican Communion is on the horns of a horrible dilemma. How does it recognise these two good things, when for some in the communion, particularly the Nigerian and Ugandan Primates but also the leaders of the Diocese of Sydney, the second is considered very bad?

On Thursday, when the first communiqué from the Primates meeting was published, I felt physically sick. Once again, I thought, our leaders have failed to live out the gospel, and once again they have thrown me and the millions of LGBTI people around the world to the lions. But if you read the statement carefully, you realise that it is part of a process.

The final statement, issued on Friday, says "The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people."

An interim statement,issued as a result of a leak on Thursday, says, "The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching." The statement does not say that this is the only possible interpretation. It is a fact that the majority of those gathered reaffirmed that teaching; but this, as does the final conclusion of the communique, leaves the door very wide open for further consideration and possible movement.

The conclusion is: “We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.

In other words, the talking goes on. No one knows what the outcome might be. The Archbishop has called another Lambeth Conference for 2020. Might we, by then, have a federal structure, allowing those who welcome LGBTI people to do so, alongside another which takes a conservative view?

Or might we, in the Church of England, have found a different way forward? One of the hardest things for me, as Vicar of St John's, is that the current position is pastorally impossible. How can I properly affirm the many LGBTI people who are connected to St John's, and their parents, families and friends, if our church has no liturgy, no words and no provision to welcome them? All I can do is say that I, as a gay man myself in a relationship of profound love and mutual support know, beyond doubt, that I am loved by God - as are we all - and I work for the day when the church can say that too.

It's hard, and it's depressing. Particularly at the end of a week when we have been celebrating the life of David Bowie, not noted for his Christianity but noted for being willing to push at the boundaries in ways which were creative, exciting and affected a generation - while the Anglican Communion seems to be a means of stifling creativity, a travesty of the calling we all share.

So was the outcome of the Primates' Meeting good or bad? Bad, because we still can't move forward as a Communion. I wish I could say that in some ways it was good as well, but I can't, because the pain and anger is too raw, and it feels like a repetition of what I've experienced so often before in international Anglican matters. But, I suppose, we are still working, together, on possible outcomes. In other words, it's Anglican. Frustrating but with glimmers of hope. Painful and requiring generosity. Through a glass darkly we try to understand the love of God; the struggle goes on.

I am hugely grateful for the grace and clarity of Bishop Michael Curry, and for the graciousness evident in the Episcopal Church. Some final words from him:

"I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain. The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to 'walking together' with you as fellow Primates in the Anglican family."

There's a moving video here, which he released after the press conference - I urge you to watch it.


It feels more important than ever that there are prominent churches speaking clearly for a different way, and I am glad that we are becoming one of those churches. I am glad that we offer thanksgiving services for same sex relationships, and that we are very clear in the welcome we offer to LGBTI people across faith traditions seeking to pray and love as part of our community. I give huge thanks to all who work in so many different ways to enable St John's to try to be a place of welcome and inclusion.

I pray with sadness for those who are hurt by this controversy.

But I pray, too, with hope and thankfulness for the whole church, knowing that, in the words of Mother Julian of Norwich: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

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