THIS WEEK the heads of Anglican churches around the world (known as Primates) will gather in Canterbury to debate the future of their global network, the Anglican Communion, because of deep divisions over church teachings on sexuality.
Last week, leaders with a conservative outlook said they would attend (they boycotted the last Primates meeting in 2011) but threatened to walk out if the meeting does not go in the way they would wish.
This morning, the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday published an open letter to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York urging the Church to repent of its 'second-class citizens' treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) Christians worldwide.
The BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme took up the story, broadcast in two parts:
- Part 1 is a debate between two leading British Evangelicals who contributed to a book called Good Disagreement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church, Stephen Ruttle QC and Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, on how well the church can manage competing claims of truth and justice, and the role of mediation in seeking reconciliation or graceful separation. Listen here (7mins).
- Part 2 includes stories of the experiences of LGBTI Anglicans, including Penelope, a trans woman who attends the monthly service for LGBTI Christians my partner and I run in Liverpool, and an interview with the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, David Ison, one of the signatories of the open letter to the Archbishops and a response from the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali. It redresses the imbalance of a debate on the Sunday programme last month, in which a representative of the conservative group Anglican Mainstream, Canon Dr Chris Sugden, conflated homosexuality with paedophilia. Listen here (15mins).
I'm not a theologian (though I studied theology while at a Roman Catholic seminary in the 1990s) - I'm a gay Christian who has spent much of the last ten years supporting and hearing the stories of LGBTI Christians as they struggle to navigate the conflict between their spirituality, sexuality and gender identity. This morning at the liberal Anglican church which hosts Open Table, the monthly service for LGBTI Christians which Penelope attends, we heard a reflection from a woman who has recently spent two weeks volunteering in the refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos. As we heard heart-rending stories of the extent of this global humanitarian crisis, I felt overwhelmed by sadness that the Primates are gathering to debate the finer points of theology, tradition and doctrine, while the world watches people fleeing from terrorism and war and finding no safe haven. I prayed that the Primates might speak with justice, mercy and compassion about issues affecting the survival of so many in the world, rather than drawing lines around who is in and who is out of their exclusive club. Even if the debate must stick to internal politics, Anglicanism is known as a 'broad church' for its capacity to encompass diversity of belief and practice, on the role of women and responses to divorce, for example. So turning the teaching on sexuality into a deal breaker feels extreme. At times like this, it's hard not to respond with passion or indignation in a way that demonises those who disagree with or are different from us. I think it is reasonable to expect respectful dialogue that does not shame or marginalise the other who disagrees or is different. As my partner, who took part in the regional Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality last autumn, wrote in his reflection on the process:
I don’t feel any great need for you to agree with me theologically. What is essential to me is that the depth, love, integrity, fidelity and sheer importance of my relationship is honoured.
That is my prayer for the Primates meeting this week - and if some who disagree must go, may they go with peace in their hearts. Or perhaps all will be outwitted by Love: