Thursday, January 21, 2016

Marriage Schism

I enjoyed “The Tudors” when it was on Showtime a few years back. It fit well with the soap-opera story telling style of today – plenty of sex, deceit, back-stabbing and politicking to entertain for hours. Henry VIII had a voracious appetite for everything. His marriage to Anne Boleyn became the trigger that split the Church of England from the Catholic Church since the Pope would not annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The issue of marriage is therefore a founding bedrock principle of the Church of England which is the seat of Anglicanism. It’s ironic that marriage is still an issue 483 years later and may well be the undoing of the Anglican communion.

On January 14 at a meeting in Canterbury England of the 38 Primates (bishops) of the Communion the Episcopal Church was sanctioned over its acceptance of gay marriage. “For three years, the Episcopal Church will not be allowed to participate in many of the communion's internal decisions or represent Anglicans in meetings with Christians and other faith groups.”

For all practical purposes the punishment will have little effect on the day to day lives of parishioners throughout the United States. As a cradle (to eventual grave) Episcopalian who attends services weekly for much of my life I can’t remember when a decision by the primates affected my own beliefs or religious practices. That said – this decision matters and it matters a great deal.

“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” has been the motto of the American branch of the Anglican Communion for as long as I can remember. It’s not only an effective tag line – it accurately reflects the ethos of the denomination. Liturgical traditions vary widely – from a high mass with incense and bells to a low mass in the round with clapping and drums. Its no surprise that a religion that is inclusive and celebrates difference as a strength would be one that welcomes LGBTQ people. It also makes total sense that once the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage for all the Episcopal Church followed suit. It would have been hard pressed to continue banning the practice.

Newly elected Presiding Bishop Michael Curry released a video and a statement that perfectly encapsulates the “turn the other cheek” Christian philosophy through a practice of “loving your enemy.” His most powerful perspective was this:

“The truth is, it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed, where this is truly a house of prayer for all people.“
The Anglican Communion is not Catholic-lite. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not the Pope – he isn’t able to dictate policy and have it ‘be law.’ It’s set up in many ways like what’s ultimately needed in the American political system – consensus is required and getting it is messy. And those with the loudest bark seem to win. The African bishops were very clear from the get go – they would break off from the Communion if there wasn’t some penalty to those who accept gay marriage. The Uganda Primate (where homosexuals are killed for being gay) didn’t even stay for the entire meeting as he was unable to be in the same room as the Americans since it was an “insult” to his people.

The sanction comes as The Church of England reports attendance below one million on a weekly basis – a 1% dip that continues year after year. Throughout the United Kingdom only about 12% of the population is affiliated with The Church of England, a far cry from its roots when wars were fought over the role the Church was to hold in people’s lives. The majority of Anglicans come not from England or America, but instead Africa.
The African provinces represent the largest number of congregants worldwide and therefore their voices should be heard.

What would have happened if the discussion went the other way? If those provinces that advocate for excluding LGBT people from the sanctity of marriage were drowned out by those who said all are welcome and all are loved? What if the nearly 500-year history of a Church born out of permitting one to love who one wanted continued the practice to its same sex brothers and sisters? Would they prayerfully consider the issue and stay connected? Or would they break off? We’ve already seen the answer: they go their own way. Are those who stay and try to heal and work on staying connected doing the right thing? Time will tell. Our history in the faith is born of a schism.

Church services for me are as much about the community as my personal relationship with God. The primates decision won’t change who I love. The schism that’s occurring is political. My deepest held prayer is that the Anglican Communion welcome diverse voices and beliefs and not punish them. If that can’t happen, I know the Episcopal Church has the strength of its convictions to welcome all.

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