Unusually for me, I’ve already spent over 24 hours thinking about this blog – usually what I write comes easily and quickly – or not at all! I’ve played with ideas and content and the place to start over and over again.
I want to write about the Primates meeting starting on Monday. I’ve had nearly twenty years of involvement with the Anglican Communion and the outcome of this further attempt to resolve divisions matters to me. It matters because I am a Christian, because I am gay, and because I am repeatedly engaged by God who inspires me with ideas that ask to be set down in a blog.
There have already been many reports about the meeting in the media, in national papers, on radio, and online. Clearly briefings have taken place and journalists have been phoning their contacts for comment. The majority of comments have been made by conservative voices describing what those opposed to the full and equal inclusion of LGBTI people are threatening to do. The Guardian reports that Archbishops from conservative churches in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Rwanda and Congo are likely to walk out of the summit within a day or two of its opening on Monday. A senior C of E source is quoted as saying: “There’s going to be a lot of drama. It’s 90% likely that the six will walk out. If we get past Tuesday, we’ll be doing well.” I wouldn’t mind betting that source lives in Oxford.
These reports of the threat to walk out that various Primates have made makes for dramatic media reporting and sets out in advance the narrative the press plan to tell. In the conversations between the six Primates and their media managers in the UK they may well have discussed such threats and demands. They set up a very unfortunate dynamic prior to the meeting which makes life difficult for staff at Lambeth Palace, Church House and the Anglican Communion Office. I have more sympathy for their predicament now than I might have had in the past. It means that the level of anxiety as the meeting begins will be higher than would have been the case without the threats. Some of the Primates may find this mood of intimidation difficult and will feel ill at ease. The Primates said to be arriving with these threats in mind may come to the meeting with arrogant and closed hearts, determined to secure their goal of imposing their version of the prime authority of Scripture on everyone else.
The media reports raise the fear that at the end of the week the Anglican Communion will no longer exist in quite the same way that it is presently constituted. Some would have us believe that it will barely exist at all, and play the numbers game, claiming that the over half the total membership of the Communion will have chosen to “walk apart”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury (any Archbishop of Canterbury) has very little real power in the Anglican Communion and the Primates meeting. Any authority he has is given by the constituent members and some of them have ensured that the authority of the present Archbishop is fragile to say the least. Justin Welby and his team will have their work cut out over the next week to create an environment of trust and truthfulness and open, transparent, loving Christian relationships in the course of the meeting.
The pre-meeting threats have the intention of trying to frighten people into accepting the demands of these Primates and persuading the masses that the end of the Communion is a kind of doomsday scenario – or alternatively that they will be rescuing Gafcon Provinces from what would otherwise be a doomsday scenario for them. I think this is just wish-fulfilment.
For example, the Guardian report says that “If the six leaders wish to formally detach their provinces from the Anglican communion, each needs to embark on a lengthy process authorised by their churches.” I have no idea what such a process might look like in each of the six Provinces. I do know that these Primates, given to issuing dogmatic statements, do so without widespread consultation in their Provinces and almost certainly without the full agreement of their clergy or bishops. Neither we nor they will know whether this is true because the Primates exert intimidating control over their ministers. To voice dissent is to risk your future in the Church.
An all-male meeting
The press release from WATCH (Women and the Church) reminded me that when the leaders meet next week there will be no women amongst them. Men will make the decisions. There are no female archbishops in the Anglican Communion.
Hilary Cotton, Chair of WATCH, said “This is billed as a really tough meeting, and it is likely to be made tougher by not having women there as equal participants. This is not because women might do it better, or because the men might behave better with female colleagues around, but because diversity (in this case gender diversity) broadens perspectives and approaches. Women would bring different life experience and wisdom, and that might help to reveal blindspots and assumptions that could be worked through, allowing a better way forward to be created."
The absence of women at a meeting which may sabotage the basic structure of the Anglican Communion will, I hope, haunt the men responsible for such an outcome and motivate women in each Province to challenge their Primates – and believe me, there are many wise, intelligent, courageous women in every Province of our Communion.
Twenty years of involvement with the Communion through my work in Changing Attitude has resulted in a network of friendships that continue to enrich and inspire me every day of my life. The six Gafcon Primates threaten to sever at a stroke the network of friendships and relationships that are the mark of Christian life and fellowship across the Communion. It would be a barbaric and shockingly destructive act. They will, fail, of course. The grass roots network is strong and robust as are the various bodies of the Anglican Communion. They are little noticed or reported but they are the life blood of the Communion, doing theology, breaking down barriers, undertaking work which brings deeper understanding across difference to people living on a fragile planet.
Relationship with God
In all the years I’ve been listening to threats from those Global South and Gafcon Primates opposed to the full inclusion of LGBTI people I have heard very little mention of our relationship with God. They may talk about the way this threatens God’s relationship with the Church and the Church with God but every relationship is personal. God’s relationship is intimately with every human being and every living being and object in creation. The deeply personal, intimate nature of God’s relationship with us is something every human being can find difficult to believe. For me, this is the characteristic of lack of faith. Not that I don’t believe in God, but that I don’t experience and fully trust the reality, felt in my body, of God’s infinite valuing of me and my life. This is the core, the essence of faith, the starting point for engagement across difference, even for arrogant, dogmatic Primates. That’s what I find so difficult. How can they be so arrogant and dogmatic if they are meeting in their hearts and souls the same God of infinite, unconditional love I meet every day when I settle into the silent, contemplative, adoring presence.
Vinay Samuel (Director of Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life) and Chris Sugden (jointly) and Andrew Symes (Chris Sugden's successor at Anglican Mainstream) all have articles about next week's Primates' Meeting in this week's Church of England Newspaper. They rehearse the familiar tropes and arguments. I was tempted to analyse them, but it’s futile.
Vinay and Chris seem exercised at the possibility that the Gafcon Primates might cut themselves adrift. They urge them not to abandon the Communion. Of course, because that would be to sever their connection with Canterbury and therefore the power and influence of conservative evangelicals within the Church of England. The only thing worse for them than the C of E accepting equal marriage is the Global South/Gafcon contingent abandoning the Communion.
Andrew Symes claims that some in the media have been promoting the lie that African Anglican leaders (and by implication their English supporters) hate gay people. It hurts the conservatives to be told that their negative attitude to LGBTI people is essentially homophobic, but it is. It's hateful to deny people equality in love and relationships.
There will be no women Primates present at the meeting. There may be a lesbian, gay, or bisexual Primate present but no-one will know. To be gay and out as a Primate is at present an impossibility. So the meeting will make decisions about us and our place in the family of the Church and in human families without women or LGBTI people contributing to the conversation.
I’ve reached the stage where what they decide will make no difference to my faith, my spirituality or my presence with God in creation. I have no need to give Primates authority or control over my life and my relationship with God. I encourage others to have confidence in their relationship with God and to ignore as far as possible the pronouncements of those who have no love or care for our spiritual health and well-being.
Our relationships are multi-dimensional, of course. We relate to ourselves, to other people, to God and to all of creation. I am not advocating individualism. I am advocating confidence in personal experience and rejection of teaching and practice when it is hostile to our holistic well-being.
Last year Changing Attitude England formulated a campaign statement:
We are campaigning for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in the Anglican Church in ministry and relationships
This has to be our goal for the entire Anglican Communion. Every Anglican Province will eventually come to affirm the presence and place of LGBTI people in the Church. Our presence, our gifts and our intimate relationships will be celebrated and blessed.
Whatever disruption in the structure of the Communion occurs next week, there will be LGBTI people praying and longing, and in some cases working quietly and effectively, for our full, public, joyful inclusion in the life of the Church. The evolutionary trajectory of God in history makes this outcome inevitable. The Gafcon Primates are trying to reverse a movement which is irreversible.
That’s my dream and it is a dream that I know will be fulfilled. How long it will take I know not. I do know that my grass root friendships and our global networks are such that we will continue to subvert attempts to suppress us. A transformation of LGBTI presence is taking place in Africa and elsewhere on our planet.
Is the Primates’ meeting a busted flush? Maybe. Maybe the forces of intolerance and prejudice are so great that they result in the break-up of the Primates’ meeting and the Anglican Communion as at present constituted. But the networks and friendship links are so extensive and subversive and filled with Godly faith that they will overcome any temporary disruption to our common life in Christ.