There have been times when my kids have not gotten invited to their friends’ birthday parties. Either I hear about it from another parent or they find out about the missed event from someone else, and there is sadness and pain. As a parent I wonder if I should do more to smooth the way for them, initiate more play dates or encourage them more as they build friendships. Then the insult passes, and then they hit each other with foam swords or talk about their minecraft creations and the world is restored again, just a little less stable than it was, but restored nonetheless.
Since Bishop Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, there have been a lot of foam swords swung around in the global church (There were, to be sure, lots swung before that, mostly around women’s ordination). Last summer’s national church vote to amend the marriage canon to include same gender marriage was hope and joy and wonder. We have plenty of distance to travel for ending discrimination, but we have decided, collectively, that we are finished arguing about equal marriage in the life of the Episcopal Church based in the US. Finis.
So now, the international meeting of heads of Anglican Churches—primates—have voted to suspend us for three years for having done so. Honestly, the thought occurred to me to be surprised at the fact that it hadn’t happened earlier. We have had times of “fasting” and not making more publicly LGBTQ bishops, in attempting to please the self-appointed orthodox (whether those were conformed to because of accident or intention is another question). Throughout the last 13 years, the global church has continually gone neither as far as the far right would prefer nor as far as the far left would prefer. It’s been very Anglican. Via media, etc. Even this time, Bishop Ntagali of Uganda left the Primates meeting early because he was angry that the Episcopal Church wasn’t being kicked out completely.
Here’s the thing.
The Anglican Communion, as an institutional body, has more in common with the structure of parents mediating birthday parties than, for example, Congress and the President. Many of the primates are not democratically elected by their whole church. The primates themselves represent their individual churches, but as “first among equals,” not as enforcers who can make anyone do anything. Obviously how that’s lived out in different places varies. The word “Episcopal” means that our church is overseen by bishops. Who oversees the bishops? Well, they’re all sitting next to each other at a table. The Archbishop of Canterbury is at the head of the table, but he’s still just one person sitting at the table. Unlike the President and Congress, he doesn’t have veto power over what the bishops might want to do individually. Bishop Gates can tell me how I can function as a priest, but Bishop Curry, Presiding Bishop/ Primate of the Episcopal Church can’t dictate how Bishop Gates functions as a bishop. Bishop Gates sits at Presiding Bishop Curry’s table and he sits at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s table.
Still, it’s sad. Almost 8 years ago, St Peter’s Anglican Church of Uganda came to worship at my parish, Christ Church. While I have never felt like we are singlehandedly holding the Anglican Communion together, it has been important to me that we are sure that we are one Body of Christ, even if there are things we might disagree about. Five years after they came, I traveled to Uganda and Tanzania with Bishop Shaw (that’s when I started this blog). I was actually in Kampala, Uganda on the day the Archbishop of Uganda was consecrated, along with Tom Shaw, himself a gay bishop (however celibate, being a monk and all). We were wrapping up our visit with the Bishop Masereka Christian Foundation, where we learned about their work in Kasese, with AIDS prevention, maternal health, and children’s education. There were more important things on the table than human sexuality.
What binds us together? The communion of saints. The Prayer Book. Shared history. Kind of like minecraft and foam swords. We are in relationship with each other because we are in relationship with each other. Neither the primates’ gatherings nor the Archbishop of Canterbury were ever constructed as dogmatic doctrine-creating bodies. That’s not what they’re for. They’re built for relationship. That’s it. And there are a lot of ways to be in relationship. My time in Uganda was amazing and transcendent, I’m embarrassed that I haven’t kept the connections made on that trip more strongly. I do think that on Sunday I might stay late at Church to pray with St Peter’s, for whom debates like this are closer to home.
Being suspended is sad, but not tragic. Gay teenagers getting kicked out of their homes by their parents? That’s tragic. The murder of transpeople because of their gender expression? That’s tragic. Respecting the dignity of every human being, as we say in the baptismal covenant, to me means honoring LGBTQ persons at every level of the church. The humanity of all God’s people is not up for debate. It’s just not, and clearly, it’s “worth” whatever institutional penalty could be imposed. Can we actually be kicked out of the Anglican Communion? Maybe, maybe not. If the bishops who voted the suspension think that we’re going to amend our gay-loving lifestyles in three years, they are clearly wrong. And if that means that we can’t go to the meetings, okay. But I am still part of a global family of churches that draw our lineage to the English Reformation, and I will still have a strange loyalty to the Book of Common Prayer, even though we print everything in a single leaflet at my church and almost never open the book itself.
This Sunday, I’ll preach the wedding at Cana: abundance and transformation and celebration and miracle. I may even preach about weddings: the joining of two persons (of any gender) in love and faithfulness. I’ll preach, too, about hope, that Jesus Christ who brought us into his body is strong enough to manage when we are struggling, and always gives us more than we dared ask for.