Do you ever have moments during which you realize you’ve been burying your head in the sand? I tend to be a pretty focused person, so when I am consumed by something-such as implementing children’s worship, writing a sermon, or planning a wedding-that is where I keep my focus. This January, at Diocesan Council, I felt like someone was opening my eyes. I literally had the thought, “Oh, right! There are other churches besides Emmanuel! There are Anglican churches around the world!” I found it refreshing to see what ministries were going on in other places and be reminded that no matter how fabulous we are, we are not actually the center of the Universe. In that Spirit, this sermon will be an attempt to do a brief overview of the current conflict in the Anglican Communion.
Last week, we read part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to the disciples. The reading we have today is part of a longer prayer immediately following his discourse. If the Gospel of John were a novel, this prayer would be the climax. The prayer sets out Jesus’ vision for the church, and the vision is one of unity. John writes, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
When Jesus said this prayer, he had maybe a few hundred serious followers. The concept of unity was a pretty reasonable expectation. Now, of course, there are millions of Christians, and thousands of denominations. The Christian church has split over and over and over again, over issues profound and silly.
And while we may not have been paying much attention over here in our idyllic part of the world, our own Episcopal denomination and Anglican Communion are going through their own conflicts.
I’ll be honest. One reason I haven’t preached much about this, is that I don’t really understand what is going on. Every once in awhile I’ll see some news item about a church that has left, or a report that’s been published by some committee, but the language is generally pretty dry and confusing, so I end up reading some celebrity gossip instead.
However, this week, just in time for this passage about unity, a friend passed on a speech given by the Archbishop of South Africa, which contained a Cliff’s Notes history of the Anglican Communion and the current conflict. I will now attempt to condense his work even further give you a Sarah’s Notes version of his insights.
The Anglican Communion was actually started the same year Emmanuel began, in 1860. The Church of England had started churches in all the areas where England had its empire. After England began losing its power and withdrawing from all these countries, the churches remained. Unlike the Catholic church, where there was one central authority, these individual Dioceses were politically independent from one another. What tied them together was each of their relationships to the See of Canterbury, their use of the Anglican prayer book, and the ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops. They stayed only loosely connected until the late 1840s when two bishops in South Africa began a series of arguments which continued for twenty years and led to accusations of heresy until one bishop excommunicated the other bishop! Now, the diocese realized they could not handle this problem on their own, and so the first meeting of bishops from Anglican churches throughout the world began in 1867 to help solve this problem.
While other denominations had official dates of formation or confessional statements everyone needed to sign in order to join, the Anglican Communion developed more organically, and was always a consultative body, rather than a body that formed rules that everyone had to follow.
Over time several “instruments of unity” were formed, in order to help different provinces of the Anglican Church stay connected to one another. The instrument that has been around the longest is the Archbishop of Canterbury. This Archbishop is a leader among equals. His job is to initiative meetings, and be a central point for the church to gather, and not to “rule” over the church. Another instrument of unity is the Lambeth Conference-which is the meeting of every bishop in the church, every ten years. A third point of unity is the Anglican Consultative Council, which is made up of lay people, priests, and bishops. The fourth is the primates’ meeting. This is not a meeting of apes, but a meeting of all the Archbishops around the world. These Archbishops meet every couple of years, or as needed.
So, fast forward one hundred years to the late 1960s. Over time, these different parts of the Anglican communion, including our own Episcopal church, have developed relationships that have largely been about connecting, sharing resources, and learning from one another. Suddenly, the issue of the ordination of women arises and now these instruments of unity have a slightly different role. Together they are going to work to find a solution to a complicated question. In 1968, the Lambeth Conference-the large meeting of all bishops-asks the Anglican Communion to study the question. So, the Anglican Consultative Council, takes that mandate and spends several years debating the question. By a narrow margin, they decide that it would be okay for individual dioceses to ordain women if they would like to, but it should not be forced on the entire communion. In 1978, the Lambeth Conference affirmed that decision.
Over the following twenty years, the issue of homosexuality and the church came up and began to be a point of discussion. In his speech the Archbishop reports, In 1978 Lambeth “passed a resolution which affirmed faithfulness and chastity within and outside marriage, and called for a wider theological study of sexuality. Its final clause said, ‘While we affirm heterosexuality as the scriptural norm, we recognise the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.’ It also encouraged dialogue with homosexual people, and affirmed their need for pastoral care. ”
What ended up happening was that the primates of many parts of the church latched onto the idea of heterosexuality as the scriptural norm, and neglected to pursue the part of the call to dialogue with homosexual people.
Fast forward to three summers ago. Despite there being no decision by any one of the four instruments of unity, the diocese of New Hampshire consecrated an openly gay bishop. And, pardon my French, all hell broke loose.
A few individual churches and dioceses within the Episcopal Church wanted to disassociate from the larger Episcopal Church. Many African dioceses wanted to break off relationship with the Episcopal Church. So, over the last three years, some African bishops, in order to support the breakaway Episcopal congregations, have been flying to the United States to ordain priests and consecrate formerly Episcopal priests into African denominations. Our Diocese, the Diocese of Virginia, has been the center for a lot of this. You may have seen news reports of The Rev. Martyn Mims, formerly of Truro Chruch, being ordained as a bishop by an African bishop, so he could oversee breakaway churches in the Episcopal Church.
So, in response to all of this, something called the Windsor Report was published. A committee of people with varying perspectives wrote it, and asked the Episcopal church to repent of their actions and asked the African bishops to back off from our church’s business.
The complicating factor is, that while General Convention has complied to some degree with the Windsor Report, individual dioceses continue to ordain homosexual persons and bless same sex unions, which lights a fire under the conservative bishops.
Members of the Anglican Consultative Council, who were again charged with sorting all of this out, spent months carefully working on a draft covenant, but before they could publish it, some of the Primates-those are Archbishops-put out a Communique this spring using very strong language saying that the American Episcopal Church has not done enough to repair broken relationships. This did not make the group working on the covenant very happy, since it undermined their hard word.
So, here we are. Some kind of unity, huh? I have given you only the roughest sketch of what is going on. If you request this sermon from Janice later on, I will attach links so you can read some of these documents yourself.
But do not despair! In the midst of all this controversy, I want to tell you about the group of Anglican women that meet annually at the United Nations, during the time when they study the status of women throughout the world. The meeting this year was in the early spring, right when the latest communiqué from the Primates was published. These women-from all provinces, all walks of life, all races-released this statement:
We, the women of the Anglican Communion gathered in New York as the Anglican Consultative Council delegation to the 51st Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and as members of the International Anglican Women’s Network representing the diversity of women from across the world-wide Anglican Communion, wish to reiterate our previously stated unequivocal commitment to remaining always in “communion” with and for one another.
We remain resolute in our solidarity with one another and in our commitment, above all else, to pursue and fulfill God’s mission in all we say and do.
Given the global tensions so evident in our church today, we do not accept that there is any one issue of difference or contention which can, or indeed would, ever cause us to break the unity as represented by our common baptism. Neither would we ever consider severing the deep and abiding bonds of affection which characterize our relationships as Anglican women.
We have been challenged in our time together by the desperately urgent issues of life and death faced by countless numbers of women and children in our communities. As a diverse delegation, we prayerfully reflected on these needs.
We thus reaffirm the conclusion of the statement presented by our delegation to this year’s Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women:
This sisterhood of suffering is at the heart of our theology and our commitment to transforming the whole world through peace with justice. Rebuilding and reconciling the world is central to our faith.
I love this statement, because these women are so deeply invested in the unity of the church-the real unity, where we work together with Christ to ease suffering and bring hope where there is no hope-that they are basically thumbing their noses at the leaders of the church and saying, “You can’t make us break communion with one another. No matter what papers you may publish, or decrees you hand down, we will continue to be in relationship with one another.”
I can think of no more response in keeping with John’s gospel. These women challenge us to think about how we can stay in unity with one another-not just within our own happy parish family, where unity is easily achieved-but with our brothers and sisters across the world. Are we willing to pursue unity with the passion of our Anglican sisters?