Communication breakdown

Published September 1, 2003

Good for Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for demonstrating leadership by calling an emergency meeting next month in London of the 38 primates of the Anglican Communion.

Now the senior bishops – shepherds of the 77-million-strong flock of Anglicans worldwide – have a chance to meet, speak and determine how they all can come together to the same eucharistic table despite their many differences, particularly around matters of sexuality. Because, heaven knows, up until now, there has not seemed to be a lot of communication – unless you count the communiqués, petitions and letters condemning one thing or another that get passed around by e-mail and pop up on the Internet like rodents in a carnival whack-a-mole game.

Although there has been no shortage recently of statements signed by priests, bishops, archbishops and primates protesting the blessing of same-sex relationships or the selection of homosexuals as bishops, the conversation feels decidedly disjointed.

Rather than appearing to be members of the same denominational family, the players in this drama all seem to be working from different scripts. Take for example the upcoming three national and international church conferences in October that will examine the church’s future in light of its differences around sexuality: The Halfway to Lambeth conference will bring together gays and lesbians and their supporters (including Bishop Michael Ingham of New Westminster and newly-confirmed Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion) to Manchester, England, to discuss the role sexuality will play on the agenda of the next decennial Lambeth gathering of all Anglican bishops in 2008.

Another summit will gather mostly American conservatives in Plano, Tex., to examine their future as they question whether they can remain in a church that accepts an openly gay bishop. And now, a third extraordinary meeting in London will challenge some of the busiest leaders in the church to juggle their schedules to discuss the crisis that many are predicting will lead to schism.

These are all worthy gatherings, which will no doubt provide great fodder for religious and secular news media alike, but would that half the energy channeled into these gatherings might go toward bringing together all sides in the sexuality debate. In a denomination where change seems to happen at a glacial speed, the last year’s worth of events concerning the role of gays and lesbians in the church and in wider society has many people reeling.

Although many have been waiting decades for the church to begin to welcome all the gifts and contributions of gay and lesbian members, there are still those for whom homosexuality is a grave sin. Many of the latter will go to their graves holding firm to their beliefs, that this is a matter of salvation.

People on all sides are in pain. But that pain should not be an excuse for withdrawing from the conversation. A number of churches and bishops have declared themselves in “impaired communion” or “out of communion” with other dioceses and provinces. Some (like the primate of Kenya) have pronounced that the diocese of New Westminster or the whole of the Episcopal Church in the United States has “kicked itself out of the Anglican Communion.” This is presumptuous, at best, and embarrassing, at worst.

But inflammatory language has fueled this drama for months. Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of Nigeria (the most populous Anglican province in the Communion) has said “I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man – Even in the world of animals – dogs, cows, lions – we don’t hear of such things;” he concludes homosexuality is an issue worth splitting the church over.

One conservative Canadian bishop, at the spring meeting of the House of Bishops, declared that the issue of homosexuality in the church would be the ditch he chose to die in. Such statements do the conservatives no favours. What the church sorely needs in this time of crisis is open hearts and minds. Last July, not long after Archbishop Williams reportedly asked for, and received, the withdrawal of Canon Jeffrey John – a self-described celibate, gay man – from his appointment as suffragan (assistant) bishop of Reading in the diocese of Oxford, the archbishop praised Mr. John for his “dignity and forbearance” and his decision to withdraw. He said homosexuals were “full and welcome members of the Church.” Sadly, the evidence continues to demonstrate otherwise.


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