Whenever I write a blog on this website the space where the title goes says, "Add a catchy title" - sorry it is not catchy and clever but this is a topic which has caused no little distress to many Episcopalians over the past couple of weeks as Bishops from around the world have been meeting in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference.
The Lambeth Conference meets every 10 years (although COVID pushed it off schedule) and is made up of all the Bishops in what we call the "Anglican Communion". This is a coalition of Churches which have their roots in the Church of England. The Episcopal Church in America, despite the fact we do not have the word "Anglican" in our name, is the official sister Church to all the Anglican Communion Churches around the world.
The Bishops attending the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury Cathedral in England.
Notice I use the word sister. That is what we are, sisters and brothers. As with any family get together there are times when conversations are heated. We have all been at a family Christmas or Thanksgiving where we wish we had stated home and eaten the cold pizza in the fridge in our pyjamas instead of attempting to engage with difficult and angry relatives. The beginning of Lambeth was like this and it all came down to human sexuality.
Many of you will know that the Episcopal Church is very liberal on the issue of gender and sexuality. We don't build barriers against full participation (including ordination) against anyone, regardless of who they identify as and who they love. Most of our sister and brother Anglicans around the world disagree. They are not stupid, they have read the Bible and prayed about it as we have and have come to a different conclusion. Do I agree with them? No. Am I going to stomp off and eat my gluten free, dairy free pizza, no.
Why? Simply put we live in a world of faction and division and the more we refuse to sit at the same table with people who, frankly, annoy the crap out of us with their views, the worse this gets. Our Bishops are not selling out by staying, they are behaving as adults should behave, they are modelling for the rest of us what tough conversations look like. Bishops on the other side of the argument are having to do the same.
The story of the family meal, of the table, is especially important for Christians because it is at God's Table where we are most ourselves. We cannot claim God's Table as our own, no matter how much of an issue of justice we believe such an action to be. We could choose to separate, to find corner of the world which is quiet and where we can believe what we want inside our Churches. But where is the message in that? If we are confident in what we believe we will sit at the table. People who are confident in their beliefs have the ability to listen, to understand, to walk a mile hand in hand with those with whom they disagree.
This is not just true at Lambeth but in our communities throughout America. I live in the South and sometimes hear things which raise my hackles. Not so long ago someone asked me what Episcopalians believed, after mentioning God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and their respective work for us and in us, I eventually found myself talking about sexuality. The other person was from a conservative Pentecostal Church and immediately launched into Genesis. I told her that I did not want to argue and that for every argument she put forth I would already have a counter argument. We should agree to disagree. She agreed. We both firmly believe what we believe and arguing would only entrench her more and, possibly, ruin any chance of future conversation.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the focal point of the Anglican Communion but has no executive power over most provinces (areas), issued a statement which acknowledges the split and affirms that we Episcopalians are in the minority. But it also affirms that we are sisters and brothers at the table and that no one gets kicked out because of what they believe and no one is forced to say anything which they do not believe.
In a response, Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop said
"My friends, I've been a bishop 22 years. I’ve been a priest over 40 years. And I have to tell you that as far as I know that is the first time a document in the Anglican Communion has recognized that there is a plurality of view on marriage. And that these are perspectives that reflect deep theological and biblical work and reflection. That they reflect and respect the context in which we live and seek to address the pastoral needs of our people, of all the children of God—that’s why I say today is a hopeful day".
I understand for many this will not be enough, this will be painful and will feel like we are selling out. Some will feel abandoned and less safe in a place they have recognized as home. You have not. However, I am not going to write this off as mere political maneuvering because to remain in relationship we have to remain in conversation and to remain in conversation we have to stay at the table".
I was worried a few days ago that the Episcopal Church would show itself to be the recalcitrant teenager at the family get together, we have not. In a space where we are the vast minority we have shown and garnered respect. We need to think and pray about this model of conversation because in our own divided and angry land we cannot simply refuse to engage with everyone whose views we find objectionable. Even within the Episcopal Church we do not all agree.
I have been in parish ministry for 25 years. During that time I have come to realize that we are never all going to agree on everything but neither should we silence voices. My bottom line in our Church is that you are welcome, no matter what you believe, and this is hard, journeying together can be painful. What is not welcome, and I will not tolerate, is hatred towards any of God's children, no matter which end of the spectrum of belief that it comes from, and no matter what forms its expression takes.
Difficult conversations are not new. From slavery and race, to the place of women in the Church and human sexuality, we have always tried to engage in tough places. Sometimes we have done that better than others. At each juncture, at each call for justice, some have walked away from the table and these conversations are not over. Let's be courageous enough to listen to those who disagree with dignity and strength. Let us notice those amongst us who are tired and bent low, and carry some of their burden for a while. Let us understand that, sometimes, strength is in silence and not angry retort. Most of all, in prayer and community, let us work diligently for God's kingdom to be here on earth where justice and peace shall reign and each and every person be honored as one who God finds beautiful and worthy of God's everlasting invitation to Love.