This week, the 38 primates (most senior bishops) of the member churches of the Anglican Communion have been meeting in Canterbury, called together by invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to ruminate about the state of our fellowship of churches. There has been considerable turmoil within the Communion over decisions over the past several years by The Episcopal Church (based in the United States) and the Anglican Church of Canada that have led to the full inclusion of LGBT people into the sacramental life of the church and into its ordained ministry at every level. Most recently, this past summer, The Episcopal Church’s General Convention voted to make it possible for same-sex couples to be included in the sacrament of marriage.
These decisions have been costly. The Episcopal Church has lost a number of members over what is often perceived as a “concession to culture” and a departure from “biblical” truth and the historic doctrine and practice of the church. Of course, we have also gained members as a result of this decision. It has also damaged our relationship with many of our sister and brother Anglicans around the world, who have felt that we have departed from the true faith in a significant way.
What seems difficult for some of our sister and brother Anglicans to understand is that our movement toward the full inclusion of LBGT people has not been a concession to cultural change in the United States. Rather, this movement has been one of deep and, it appears, courageous faith. As we have sought to understand the Gospel of Christ ever more deeply, we have come to see that the life and teaching of Jesus demand the full inclusion of all people into the life of the church. We have come to see LBGT people not as defective, but as made in the image of God and deserving of all the blessings and graces that the church bestows so that they may enter into the fullness of life. As Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” To limit access to the abundance of life in Christ is, we have concluded, the real sin.
It is understandable that many of our sisters and brothers would find this change challenging. After all, many of the cultures and experiences in which they dwell make the kind of discussion that has led The Episcopal Church to this moment impossible for them — or, at least, very difficult. And so we have been willing to respect that they are in a different place, even as we have continued to call them to express the deepest compassion toward LGBT people within their own churches and societies. We have not, for one moment, wished to break relationship with them, even as we have insisted on the integrity of our own position.
Today, however, it was announced that the Anglican Communion primates have voted to suspend The Episcopal Church from most aspects of the Communion’s life for the next three years, as punishment for our decision to move in the way we came to believe our faith demanded. We have, in other words, been pushed to the margins of the Anglican Communion’s life because, in essence, we are seen as unclean and a potential contaminant to the life of the larger church.
In Jesus’ time, there was tension over how the Law of Moses was to be interpreted. Most of the Pharisees, the religious party within Judaism with which Jesus most frequently came into conflict, tended to interpret the law according to a principle of purity. For them, it was important that people — and the Jewish nation as a whole — remain pure, separating themselves from anything that might threaten that ritual purity. It was because of this way of interpreting the Law that people whose illnesses rendered them unclean were pushed out of their communities. The Pharisaic response to people who didn’t meet the standard of purity they valued was to marginalize them. All of this was done in God’s name, believed to be what God required of them if they were to be a holy people.
Jesus, however, interpreted the Law using a principle of mercy, and saw in the Law a demand for compassion above all else. There was no room in Jesus’ teaching to marginalize those perceived as unclean. And, consequently, much of his ministry was devoted to reversing the marginalization — healing diseases that brought condemnation, restoring people to their families and communities, and assuring them that they were loved by God. There is an important ethic that informs all of Jesus’ teaching and ministry: that if one wants to know what is the right thing to do, one goes to the margins and edges of society and listens to those who have been cast out. For Jesus, it was this deep compassion and transforming inclusion that made for a holy people.
It is, in some ways, hard to think of The Episcopal Church as marginalized — while many of our churches struggle financially, on the whole we are blessed with significant resources, and we are free to live our religious life as we see fit. But the Anglican Communion has seen fit to marginalize us ecclesiastically. We could be angry. But I think we should be honored. After all, the margins is where Jesus spent his life and ministry — and he assured those who were pushed to the margins that they were, indeed, also being pushed into the Light of God’s love.
Since this original publication of this blog, the complete statement from the gathering of Anglican Primates has been released. The word “suspension” is not used, and in a news conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury did not use this language, though it was used in many press articles prior to the release of the full statement. It seems to me, however, that whatever language one chooses to use, the effect is the same: that of pushing The Episcopal Church out of those parts of the Communion’s life where, in the estimation of a majority of the Primates, we could potentially cause the most damage.