A short while ago the Archbishops of Canterbury & York met almost all of the Primates (Archbishops) of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Now normally, no-one would notice! It’s hardly earth shattering news as far as most of the world is concerned! This time however, things were different. A while ago, the Anglican Episcopal Church in the USA changed their Canons (Official Rules) and Statements of Belief (Credal statements) about marriage.
The Universal Church, including Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, as well as Non Conformists like the Methodists, have maintained the Biblical definition and discipline of marriage. That is to say, “The union of one man with one woman, for life, to the exclusion of all others.” Now the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) has unilaterally changed all the above definitions of marriage to include single sex marriages. So, there is now no distinction between same sex marriages and opposite sex marriages. In common parlance, Gay marriage and Straight marriages are completely equal. Now, whatever the views on Gay marriage, such a change, made unilaterally is against the rules of the Anglican Communion. Within the Anglican Communion, there is a representative body called the Anglican Consultative Council, (ACC). All of the constituent churches of the Anglican Communion have formally agreed to make any substantial changes ONLY though the processes of the ACC. Now this has happened before in several instances including discipline around divorce and remarriage. ACC has charted the way for either consensus or open the way for individual churches to differ in their discipline. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, e.g. some things are considered first order decisions where only unanimity will do whilst others are acceptable changes for individual churches. But you get the idea. ACC allows for the negotiation and decision making process.)
This unilateral move by ECUSA has upset a lot of people. The upset is for mainly three distinctive but important reasons, by several distinct groups of Christians.
Group 1. Those who consider that marriage, having a clear description in the Bible (see Mark Ch2 for example, as well as many other texts) is a First Order issue. That is to say it cannot be changed except with unanimity. This First Order issue is also important in relationships with other major Christian bodies including RC & Orthodox. That is to say, there is a common discipline, as mentioned above, across the vast majority of Christians. To make a change unilaterally is seen as completely out of order. ECUSA is seen as breaking the rules and gone out on a limb. The ACC process has been completely ignored. This is seen as dangerous. What could be changed next? Are all changes ok? Whatever the particular issue, most people will see that a free for all is not a good plan!
Group 2. Those who think that homosexuality, particularly homosexual sex is deeply sinful. In broad terms, those who think this way, within Anglicanism, are primarily of the Evangelical tradition. This view is particularly strong in the by far biggest group of Anglicans, those of the African Sub-continent. They align particularly within those countries where homosexuality is illegal, and in some cases subject to capital punishment (the death penalty) [See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/02/24/here-are-the-10-countries-where-homosexuality-may-be-punished-by-death/]
Those in this group are very powerful in Anglicanism. (Our own Diocesan Bishop would fit into this group) It seems that they have exercised their power in this debate. A sizeable number of very large Anglican National churches in Africa and a large number of large and powerful (and wealthy) individual Evangelical parishes in this country threatened to walk away from the Anglican Communion if ECUSA were allowed to stay. This is almost universally because of their objection to Homosexuality on Biblical grounds. Many people believe that this action, if it took place, would destroy the Anglican Communion. In more explicitly practical terms many parts of the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England, would ‘go bust’ financially in quite a short time. Some might ask “Does that matter?” Well, yes it does. Well it does if you want to remain part of the Church of England, to have a Vicar and remain in St Stephen’s Church building. Where the Church in the United States has divided, many Christian parishes are being ejected from their buildings. It’s more complicated in England, but let’s just say it would be far from easy for parishes like us. Someone recently said it would be a bit like when Woolworths closed down. Some branches remained under local management at first, but few remain now. None can use the Woolworth logo.
Group 3. Those Christians who are homosexual (Gay) themselves together with those who are not gay themselves, but who consider that there should be no discrimination against Gay people. People (including some gay people) in this group might still have some mixed feelings about how ‘Gay marriage’ could or should be arranged in church. But most in this broad grouping (including your Vicar) consider that discrimination of any kind against Gay people within the life of the church is completely wrong.
What did the Primates do?
The Primates meeting suspended ECUSA from the Anglican decision making process for three years. This means that they will no longer be able to play a full part in Anglican Communion business and activities. This was, to be fair, NOT done because of the ‘Gay issue’ directly, but because ECUSA stepped outside the proper ACC route to change the doctrine and discipline. The ‘Gay issue’ precipitated the change, but the suspension was caused by the breaking of ranks.
The trouble is, that both the African Primates themselves and very many gay people and others in ‘Group 3’ above feel that the whole Anglican Communion has now fallen hostage to the powerful anti-gay churches. Some African Primates were visibly cock-a-hoop with the decision. There is a fear amongst many that if they have won this battle, what will be next? Many gay Anglicans are fearful about their place and welcome in ordinary parishes like S. Stephen’s. There may well be no direct effect for now, but they are less comfortable than before and feel let down and treated as scape-goats in a power play. This is of course against a wider acceptance in the ordinary world. In a nation where single sex marriage is more and more acceptable, the Anglican Communion seems to be heading in the opposite direction.
Why are some Christians ‘anti-gay?’
Some Christians believe that the Bible says homosexuality, and especially homosexual sex is wrong. They are, (in my opinion to a degree), correct. Various passages in the Bible seem very clear. See for example Leviticus 18.22, Romans 1.26-28, 1Corinthians 6.9-10.
There is also an argument from ‘Natural Law.’ This runs that for sexual acts men were not naturally designed for men or women with women. The natural functions and shape of the body makes this clear. The sexual act is designed for pro-creativity, that is open to the procreation of children, clearly impossible for same-sex. Some Christians say also that homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle choice’ rather than, as it were, a given.
What do others think?
Others, including many Christians consider that for gay people, that is how they were created. Quite simply that they are ‘made that way.’ They consider that though, like everyone else, their sexuality is private to them, their expression and living out of their sexuality should engender acceptance, joy and love. Many gay Christians do, of course live out their lives in wonderful, long lasting, open and joyful relationships. But for many gay Christians there is sadness that unlike their ‘straight’ friends there can, at the moment, be no official Christian service to bless their relationship. There are no same sex marriages allowable in the Church of England. For many, the moves of ECUSA to open up marriage to all, was a sign of hope that things were changing. Now, with the action against ECUSA, largely at the behest of some ‘anti-gay’ Christian groups, the hopes seem to have been dashed. This is very painful, and seems to be giving way to an outdated homophobia. Many gay people are saying they feel rejected and increasingly persecuted within the life of their Church.
What does Fr Andrew think?
Several people have asked me what I think, to help them understand. Well, really it doesn’t matter what I think. But for those who are interested I will share my thoughts. But, they are just that; my thoughts and opinion, rather than ‘Official teaching.’
Do I think that homosexuals are sinners? Yes, I do. Because I think that we are all sinners. We all fall short of what God wants for us. The Bible says ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no health in us.’ (1John 1.8-9)
One of the very verses used by those against homosexuals seems to me to be clear on this:-
1 Corinthians 6:9-10, "Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God."
It seems to me that homosexuals are no more singled out in that passage than most of us!! Like many people I would want to ask the Primates of the Church in say, Uganda, where is their condemnation of those who swindle the poor? Where is their condemnation of drunkenness or the drink manufacturers? And so on.
For me there are no gays or straights, there are just people. People who get things right and get things wrong. And God opens his arms to all of us, calls us to live lives closer to him and in love with him and one-another. We are all loved by God. We in the church are told not to judge, lest we judged ourselves. We are told that unless we are merciful, we shall not see mercy for ourselves. There is no distinction between gay and straight in that.
Will I marry a gay couple? No. But please read on!!!
I am a Catholic Anglican through and through. I simply do not believe that as Christians we can just do what we like. Sometimes, even if what we would like to do seems right, we are not free to simply make individual decisions about things that are the prerogative of the whole church; the Primary issues of my first paragraph above. If we could do that, there would be chaos. Who is to decide what is right and what is wrong? Certainly not I. Certainly not one wing of the Church of England. This is why I take the position I do over the Ordination of women. At a personal level I am absolutely fine about it. Bring it on! But, and it’s a big But, that also is a Primary doctrinal issue which is not in the competency of one small part of Christendom. In simple terms, when we say each week ‘I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ we cannot then say in the next breath, as it were ‘But tomorrow I will ignore the rest and do what I like. For me, I hold fast to Catholic teaching on the nature of marriage as stated above. The Church reserves the word ‘marriage’ for the union of a man and a woman. Now personally am NOT against a proper form of service for same sex relationships. If I could do that, I would. But it would, for me, as things stand, have to be called by another name. I do not in this respect say at all that one is better than another, or superior to another. But in the present definition of the Catholic Church, they are different. I love oranges and apples equally. But they are different, hence they have different names.
At the moment the Church does not allow same-sex marriages or official blessings. I will maintain that discipline within the parish so long as it is there. If and when the rules change, when Catholic Anglican Christendom allows for it, I will delight in conducting appropriate services for all, irrespective of their sexuality. For now, as always, I am willing to pray with anyone who asks me.
Do I think that full participation in the Church should be open to all? Yes. With the same call to live according to the Will of Christ, applied to all people. (For the same reasons as above, I do not presently accept that women can be ordained. If the whole Church decides differently, I will be content with that too) I believe in Catholic Christendom, not a church of my own making.
Finally, as I said on the Sunday after the vote of the Primates: ALL are welcome at S. Stephen’s. All who can hear the words I quoted above as applying to them ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no health in us.’ (1John 1.8-9). Everyone is welcome to hear of and receive the love of Christ. In other words all sinners are welcome here.
With love and prayers,