The Anglican Church is embroiled in controversy after a group of high-ranking bishops issued a statement barring members of the Episcopal Church from sections of leadership because of their endorsement of same-sex marriage, a disciplinary measure some in the American denomination dispute as outside the global leadership’s authority.
Debate within the church erupted yesterday after a document was leaked from the Primates Meeting, a gathering of senior bishops within the Anglican Communion — the global body of the Church of England, which includes the American-centered Episcopal church. The document implicitly rebuffed the Episcopal Church’s recent vote to endorse same-sex marriage, and declared that representatives from the group will be banned from sitting on certain global committees for three years and prohibited from voting on “issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”
“However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years [the Episcopal Church] no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity,” the document read.
A flurry of news outlets initially reported that the resolution amounted to “sanctions” or a “suspension” of the Episcopal Church, which also ordains LGBT ministers. But Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby — who heads up the denomination — told journalists in a Friday press conference that the motions, which he said were supported by an “overwhelming majority” of bishops at the meeting, should be properly understood as “consequences.”
“We are careful not to use the word sanctions,” Welby said. “We don’t have the power to use sanctions. But there will be consequences — not within [The Episcopal Church], as we have no power over that. But within [their] participation in the communion.”
When a reporter interjected to say “That’s a sanction,” Welby snapped back: “It’s not a sanction, it’s a consequence.”
Yet the precise difference between the two semantic categories is unclear, and a growing number of frustrated Episcopalians are challenging the notion that the Primates even have the power to keep representatives of the Episcopal Church — which claims around 2 million members — from international bodies. Unlike Catholicism, where the pope and the Vatican hold significant sway over the everyday actions of individual priests, the Anglican Communion — which claims around 80 million members — affords a high degree of autonomy to the various churches underneath its umbrella.
“The language that has been used is that these are consequences, not a suspension,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, head of the Episcopal Church and an attendee at the meeting, told the Episcopal News Service. “Now, people can debate that language, but that’s the intent. That is a question that, to some extent, the [church constitutional body] will have to adjudicate.”
Jim Naughton, a partner in Canticle Communications — a group that consults with bishops and church leaders on matters of church governance — explained to ThinkProgress that Episcopalians are having a double-edged reaction to the Primates’ efforts to stymie the church’s embrace of LGBT rights.
“If there are consequences for doing the right thing, then we are happy to face those sorts of consequences,” Naughton said, speaking of the church’s support for same-sex marriage. “They are minor compared to the consequences endured by LGBT christians who suffer just for being who they are. “
“But in ‘requiring’ [the church to comply], [the Primates] seem to be in the process of creating themselves a curia that have this power — but nothing in our documents give them this sort of power. They seem to be instructing voters on who they choose to represent them, and that’s completely outside their bailiwick,” he said.
Rev. Mike Angell, an openly gay priest at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion and St. Louis and former head of the denomination’s young adult and campus ministries, noted in a blog post that the impact of the resolution will likely be minor.
“There is no international court in the Anglican Communion,” Angell writes. “The Archbishop of Canterbury does not have the power of the pope, and the Primates are not a curia. The Primates do not have the power to enforce their will de-jure, but it is likely that for the next three years the bodies and officers that do make such appointments and elections will voluntarily pause appointing new representatives from The Episcopal Church de-facto.”
Angell also explains that the church endured a similar standoff with the Primates when the Episcopal Church was moving towards ordaining the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003.
“Longtime Anglicans have been watching the international news cycles about Anglican schism with a sense of deja vu,” he writes. “We’ve been here before. The Primates have made big statements. The media have made a big splash, and very little comes of the statement in the long run.”
Indeed, the left-leaning Episcopal Church has often sparred with more conservative factions of the Anglican Communion over LGBT rights. When the Episcopal Church affirmed LGBT ordination in the mid-2000s, a smattering of U.S. churches left the American denomination and claimed Anglican bishops from Africa — who overwhelmingly opposed the LGBT priests — as their new leadership.
The impact of this global split was on full display at Friday’s press conference, where Archbishop Welby was flanked by bishops from other parts of the globe. Although Welby offered a personal apology for the “suffering the church has caused” to LGBT people, Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Archbishop of Kaduna, argued that the disciplinary resolution reflected the will of some Anglican leaders in Africa, who he says see the global movement for LGBT rights as Westerners “imposing” their cultural norms on others.
“Are there gays and lesbians in Africa? Of course there are,” Idowu-Fearon said. “But generally in Africa, our culture does not support the promotion of this kind of lifestyle.”
Bishop Curry, however, saw the Episcopal embrace of the LGBT community as an act of faith, and has said he will not roll back the church’s support for same-sex marriage.
“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome,” Curry said.