Of “bonds of affection” and misplaced anxiety
If you are one of those who glance at 7WD but who are not Episco-geeks, go have a look at this news article about the election this past weekend of the Rev’d Mary Douglas Glasspool as one of two new bishops suffragan in the Diocese of Los Angeles. OK, now that we’re all caught up, I have a bit of a rant to share with you, dear reader.
Mary Glasspool’s election has energized progressives around the Anglican Communion as it has outraged conservatives. Sadly, as in the case of Gene Robinson, many people will work themselves into a tizzy over someone who will serve in a distant realm. What effect will Mary Glasspool have on, say, South Carolina? Not much, unless you’re looking for trouble. And that’s just what’s happening.
Within minutes of her election, Canon Kendall Harmon had issued this statment:
This decision represents an intransigent embrace of a pattern of life Christians throughout history and the world have rejected as against biblical teaching. It will add further to the Episcopal Church’s incoherent witness and chaotic common life, and it will continue to do damage to the Anglican Communion and her relationship with our ecumenical partners.
Of course, this is exactly the argument that fear-mongers make in response to any wider embrace the church is practicing. People said the same thing when the Euro-American church began to ordain people of color and to advocate an end to the slave trade. Racial discrimination was seen as biblical and orthodox. More recently, they’re still being made by some people about women’s ordination. Doesn’t anyone see the pattern? “We don’t want ___ in our club. We’ve always managed without them, so why start now?” Such an attitude is not hard to comprehend, but it is sadly misguided. And it runs counter to the Gospels, the teachings of St. Paul, and indeed the witness of the entire Hebrew Scriptures.
Sure, I could use proof texts to argue against, say, same-sex relationships. But then I’d be opening a whole can of worms in my ethical life. If you’re going to yell at gay people, shouldn’t you be yelling all the more at wealthy people who pull up to church in fancy cars? Oops. They pay the salary. Better not yell at them.
If you’re going to scream about same-sex relationships, shouldn’t you be screaming about divorce? Oops. Several key leaders in the conservative Anglican movement are — guess what — divorced. So loud conservatives choose to make a nuanced exception for that one. And then when you start poking around, you quickly see that the whole motivation for opposing the inclusion of lesbian and gay people is based on fear. People are always afraid of the unknown. It’s human nature. But it’s not the nature of Jesus Christ, who again and again said “be not afraid” while he was holding out a hand to the most marginalized people of his society.
For years, I’ve been urging patience in the US in our relations with the Anglican Communion. Often Americans are too quick to act unilaterally and too slow to listen. At times, our posture in Anglican Communion conversations has been patronizing or neo-colonial. But I think we learned something in the last few years about listening. Certainly, the Lambeth Conference was a watershed event. Now I think more leaders in the Episcopal Church understand our place in the Anglican Communion. I hope more and more people understand the value of our communion with a global Anglican Communion.
Around the Communion, the walls of fear are breaking down. I’ve personally spoken with bishops in two different provinces in Africa who until recently did not ordain women at all. And yet these bishops are now looking forward to enjoying the company of women in their houses of bishops. Experience and grace have transcended fear.
Now we’re told that we have to deny the possibility that God might call lesbian or gay people has bishops. Why? Because it’s not settled yet. Because some don’t like it. Because it could hurt relationships overseas. Nonsense!
We should not expect people in other cultures to share all of our values and beliefs regarding human sexuality. We should be generous in allowing differing cultural contexts. And we should ask the same of our sisters and brothers in other cultures. We should be able to focus on what unites us.
This past week, the parish I serve hosted Bishop John Zawo of the Diocese of Ezo (Sudan). Bishop John offered an inspiring sermon about being prepared to receive Jesus Christ last week, and then he came to our coffee hour and told us about life in his diocese. He was bracingly honest about the brutality of life, but also powerfully inspiring about the vitality of faith in Ezo.
On Monday, he was our guest at home. I spent lots of time sharing conversation with him. I know that he does not share my views or beliefs on the church’s inclusion of GLBT persons. At one point, I asked him what he would say to those who want to separate themselves from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like this: “Jesus commanded us to be one. We Anglicans are brothers and sisters in Christ. There can be no separation. We need fellowship from one another.”
Embedded in that statement is a sense that we are living through a tough time, but that we must stay together if we hope to be reconciled. As one west African bishop said to me last summer at the Lambeth Conference, “We are family. When families quarrel, they must come together and be reconciled.” I’ve heard similar things from lay people in several countries in Asia and Africa.
The only people who are sowing “incoherent witness and chaotic common life” are schismatic bishops and manipulative Americans. There is no crisis in the pews of the Anglican Communion. The crisis is lived out in business-class airplane seats and episcopal palaces. I will not speculate what the motives are. But I grieve the way we are harming Christ’s body, the church, by our incessant squabbles about second- or third-order matters.
And what of our chief spiritual leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury? He has remained steadfastly silent while several provinces of the Anglican Communion have supported the death penalty for same-sex activity. And yet he was able to muster an almost instantaneous response to the election of Mary Glasspool. Here I’d like to quote his statement in its entirety with some responses to each of his three paragraphs.
The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.
Well, yes. We need to ask ourselves how long we will tolerate the agenda of our Anglican Communion being set by anxiety- and fear-driven people. Sadly, most of those eager to dwell on schism are, ironically, bishops. The same people who have taken vows to guard the unity of the church seem intent in driving it apart.
The process of selection however is only part complete. The election has to be confirmed, or could be rejected, by diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees. That decision will have very important implications.
Yes, this decision will have important ramifications. Will the Episcopal Church act in a prophetic manner, giving voice to the millions of gay and lesbian Anglicans living in oppression throughout the world? Will some reactionary Anglicans use this as the latest excuse to go their own way? Will bishops and Standing Committees of the Episcopal Church follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and the canonical process of our church? (Please note: I am not in a position to say with certainty that Glasspool is called by the Holy Spirit; that is for the electing convention and those with a vote to exercise; though I do trust the process in L.A.)
The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold.
This would hold some water if anyone other than the Episcopal Church had paid a wit of attention to the Windsor Report since it was issued. Since 2003, we’ve consecrated no more gay bishops. As a Church, we’ve authorized no public rites for same-sex blessings. Meanwhile, boundary incursions by Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, the Southern Cone, and now even US Anglican dioceses continue unabated. While ECUSA was graciously restraining, Peter Akinola and his friends have been flying all over the world to conferences, holding media briefings, forming new jurisdictions, and utterly ignoring the Windsor Report and the Lambeth Conference resolutions.
Speaking of which, I’m beginning to wonder if anyone has actually read the oft-cited Lambeth 1.10. It calls for the Anglican Communion to listen to the experience of gay and lesbian persons. To my knowledge, no openly gay or lesbian person has ever addressed a Lambeth Conference, a Primates Meeting, or the Anglican Consultative Council. [CORRECTION: See the comments, below, where Solange de Santis reports that one GLBT person addressed the ACC. My general point remains.] When the Archbishop of Canterbury threw a bone toward the listening process in Anaheim, it was done almost in secret. But meetings with Archbishop Bob Duncan are held in the light of day. What does that say?
Lambeth 1.10 also says that we are “condemn irrational fear of homosexuals”. Interesting, that. Where have the primates of Uganda and Nigeria (among others) been while their nations consider criminalizing the mere discussion of homosexuality? Where has the Archbishop of Canterbury been while major leaders in his Communion flout the teachings of the Lambeth Conference? He is quick to criticize the Episcopal Church in the USA or in Canada, but utterly silent on the horrific behavior of other provinces — behavior that has murderous consequences.
I was reminded of an interesting thing today. In the genealogy of Jesus Christ, we are told that Jesus is in the line of David, through Bathsheba. Remember that story? Not exactly what we’d call family values. And yet God can bring about the Incarnation through the line of humans with the worst behavior. Even if I believed that Glasspool is wrong to engage in a lesbian relationship, doesn’t it seem strange to say that God’s grace can’t possibly flow through her? Isn’t one of the key messages of the scriptures that God’s grace is available to all?
What I find especially sad is that this same Archbishop of Canterbury, before his elevation to that role, said some very different things. He said this: “I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness.” Get that?! Rowan Williams said that God’s love could be reflected in an active sexual relationship between two men or two women — comparable with marriage. (!)
So why the change? Because presumably he views his new role as binding him to take a new position. That’s sad. Any time that fear overtakes hope, we are disregarding the Gospel’s life-giving message. For the Anglican Communion, it’s time to move on. It’s time to focus on the mission of the church, without worrying about a few people who are afraid.
After conversing with lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops from throughout the Anglican Communion, I’m convinced that only a tiny number of noisy people want schism. Most of us simply want to delight in our fellowship as sisters and brothers in Christ, united in the bonds of affection of the Anglican Communion.
Let’s be anxious about living the Gospel, not about pleasing a few people who are intent on spreading an epidemic of fear.