On January 14th, the worldwide Anglican Communion announced that it would suspend its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church, from key voting positions in the Communion for three years. Meeting in Canterbury, England, its leaders representing the Communion’s 44 national churches around the world, considered this a punishment for the affirmative response the Episcopal Church has taken toward LGBT clergy and marriage equality.
“The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the leaders of the Anglican Communion said in a statement during the meeting. “The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”
Their action stipulates that the Episcopal Church can no longer represent the Anglican Communion on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee, or take part in decision making “on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion.” This was a compromise sanction in light of stronger motions by right-wing leaders who sought for the full withdrawal of the U.S. Church.
This is the latest move by the reactionary right-wing in the on-going debate between them and progressive leaders that is splitting not only the worldwide Anglican Communion but also the American branch itself.
A breakaway American right-wing group of Episcopal churches calling itself the Anglican Church of North America has been aligning with African Anglicans to call for a crackdown on progressives. Its leader was present in the discussions with other conservatives at the January meeting to encourage worse sanctions.
On the other side, American Episcopal Church leader, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, an African American, told the gathering: “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.
“The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.”
All of this continues to beg the larger, on-going question that religious people must work through in their own lives: Which is more important, a stand for human rights or the unity of some church body?
This continues to be a life or death question for LGBT people who get counseled by well-meaning allies to put up with it, realize that the time isn’t right, or have patience and understanding of condemning believers. But, how long should they hold on and support these institutions through their membership and financial donations?
As an outsider to the denominations, from the Mormons to the Methodists and beyond, it’s not my question to answer, though it is always my question to ask people to think about consciously. Answering for religious people isn’t as easy for them as it looks to outsiders. It calls church members to search their own souls, their relationships, and their familiar life-styles.
I’ve not heard any response to the larger question that doesn’t assume the answer before the question is asked. If one believes that the unity of an institution is a transcendent value, then women, all people of color, and LGBT members, will just have to be the ones to accept it, suck up the resulting tragedies in their own lives, and make guilt-ridden choices about leaving their religious communities.
In 1847, the Baptist Convention split over the question of slavery. The new Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptists) opposed slavery while the Southern Baptists supported it under the familiar “states rights” catchphrase for retaining bigotry.
Each side, of course, believed that it possessed the true understanding of the Bible. The pro-slavery pastors argued correctly that they were supporting the traditional understanding and that abolitionist interpretations were a revisionist reading of their scriptures.
There is no command to free the slaves in the New Testament, after all, while there are many cases where slaves are advised that the Christian thing to do is obey their masters even if they’re abusive to them. Reinterpretation of their texts was for Christians to fight over while the dominant interpretation supported the status quo.
After the spilt, the Southern Baptist Convention became the largest Protestant denomination in the US. In spite of its beginning supporting slavery, it continued to have the nerve to claim it was a moral voice for the whole country by rejecting civil rights, women’s leadership, and LGBT acceptance.
Finally, in 1997 - 150 years later - its annual convention apologized for its stance on slavery. In the meantime, how many people had suffered and died while waiting for change?
Both sides in that fissure had to face whether their ethical stance was worth the split. The unity of the entire nation would then be maintained in a bloody civil war.
Then, as now, the conservative side always thinks that their values are actually worth a breakup. It’s usually the liberals who opt for unity rather than human rights in the belief that they will eventually change the holdouts.
But the question remains: who should suffer until change takes place? Today, for example, should an LGBT person remain in a currently abusive institution to work to change it or should they move their support to alternatives that aren’t abusive and go on with their lives in the limited days they have on the planet?
Are the people who are repressed by churches responsible for changing them? Should they even feel responsible? Should they be made to feel responsible by anyone else? Are they making excuses for these institutions similar to those that abused spouses make for their abusers?
These are major questions. They must be asked. And those who remain to fight should be careful not to condemn those whose spiritual path says: leave now.