The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advent letter outlines his perspective on the crisis affecting the Anglican Communion and his plans and expectations for the Lambeth Conference and the proposed Covenant.
The Archbishop naturally focuses his attention on the Primates, bishops and Instruments of Communion, and the leaders and pressure groups who are exacerbating the crisis.
What the Archbishop is unable to do is articulate the experience and views of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) members of the Anglican Communion. We are a minority but our numbers are not insignificant. If the Communion has 75 million members, at a conservative estimate there are likely to be 3.75 million LGBT people among them.
Attention is further focussed on one faithfully partnered bishop. The experience of 3.75 million LGBT members of the Communion is ignored. Changing Attitude and Integrity between us give voice and visibility to a tiny minority of the minority.
Hostility to LGBT people in the Communion is primarily expressed towards those who live in the “west”. We have benefited from over a century of progress in the development of confidence, visibility, secular political action and Christian integrity among LGBT Anglicans. The majority of the 3.75 million live in nations with penal codes condemning homosexual people to death or long-term imprisonment and a culture of prejudice and aggression towards LGBT people.
LGBT people in those countries internalise the hatred and prejudice targeted at them by those in our Communion who hold extreme conservative views, justified by Biblical literalism and fundamentalism. They are subject to demonisation, hatred, arrest, rape, torture, imprisonment and death. The Anglican Communion cannot resolve its differences without attending to the scandalous injustices perpetrated against LGBT people, often using the justification of scripture and Christian tradition.
In this context, the election to the episcopate of a partnered gay or lesbian person or the blessing of same-sex relationships cannot be allowed ultimately to determine the future of the Anglican Communion and the place of LGBT people within it. Our full inclusion must be the only outcome.
Dr Williams asks whether those holding a variety of views can be recognised as belonging to the same family, asking this especially of those who have gone “against the strong, reiterated and consistent advice of the Instruments of Communion.“ LGBT people in every Province already belong to the Anglican family. The Archbishop risks sending a message to us, yet again, that we are either to be treated as second-class citizens in our church or rendered so invisible as to be not worth taking into consideration.
Dr Williams identifies the present practical challenge as finding ways of working out a fruitful, sustainable and honest relationship for bishops who have committed themselves to the proposals of the Windsor Report in the Camp Allen conference, as well as others who have looked for more radical solutions both with their own province and with the wider Communion.
There is a more critical challenge for LGBT Anglicans beyond this problem of how groups with different Christian perspectives live together. How does the Communion live, in every part of the world, with LGBT Anglicans who are baptised and confirmed, engaged in lay leadership, ordained as priests and bishops, some of whom, in every part of the world, live in loving, faithfully-partnered relationships? This isn‘t solely a problem for The Episcopal Church, the Diocese of New Hampshire or for couples who receive the blessing of the church. It is a challenge to the whole church to recognise that God creates and calls LGBT people to become Christians and to fall in love.
Ultimately, it is in this wider context that the Anglican Communion will have to think about the present crisis. Can the church fully, honestly and gratefully recognise the gifts that LGBT people bring? The debates about sexuality may at present be a standoff between those who are ‘for’ and those who are ‘against’ the welcoming of homosexual people in the Church. The debate will not be resolved by the adoption of a Covenant nor agreement by bishops at Lambeth. It can only be resolved when the church honours in full the integrity of partnered LGBT people in congregations and in the ministry of the church in every Province.
The Archbishop may believe that the “Instruments of Communion have consistently and very strongly repeated that it is part of our Christian and Anglican discipleship to condemn homophobic prejudice and violence, to defend the human rights and civil liberties of homosexual people and to offer them the same pastoral care and loving service that we owe to all in Christ’s name.” This affirmation means nothing if the church then claims that to “be recognisably faithful to Scripture and the moral tradition of the wider Church“, the “blessing and sanctioning in the name of the Church [of] certain personal decisions about what constitutes an acceptable Christian lifestyle“ are unacceptable. It is impossible for the church to welcome LGBT people until there is a change in the discipline of the church and the interpretation of the Bible.
The 3.75 million invisible LGBT members of the Anglican Communion have no alternative but to wait impatiently while the Anglican family continues to address the Listening Process and makes the decisive move that plainly implies a new understanding of Scripture. The church has done this before in relation to slavery and the ordination of women. It will take time but it will do so again on this issue.
The debate on the presence of LGBT in the church cannot be closed. Our presence and visibility and voices will grow and the debate will continue until we are fully included. Parts of our Communion are not at present able to recognise that a church that openly ordains a person in a same-sex union or makes liturgical declarations about the character of same-sex unions is still fully recognisable within the one family. The prophetic actions of The Episcopal Church have enabled LGBT Anglicans to recognise and rejoice in the divine family likeness which has been revealed to us by their witness.
The 1998 Lambeth Conference Resolution 1.10 on sexuality may be the only point of reference clearly agreed by the overwhelming majority of the Communion. It is not honoured in full by those adopting different stances in the debate and can never be accepted by LGBT people and those who support our full inclusion in the church. Lambeth 1.10 was created in the heat of a brutally unchristian debate. It cannot be the final statement on the mind of the church.
Dr Williams assesses that we have no consensus about the New Orleans statement. Some of the positive responses reflected a deep desire to put the question decisively behind us as a Communion. Changing Attitude wishes the Communion were less obsessed with homosexuality. We have no desire to be the focus of dissent. Neither can we accept that for the sake of a false unity and peace, the church should cease to address homosexuality or engage in a process of listening and discernment.
We are among those who are dissatisfied with the effectiveness of the present channels of discussion and communication. Some Provinces have responded to the Listening Process inadequately or not at all. Those Provinces expressing deep hostility to LGBT people make it impossible for their LGBT members to engage in the Listening Process.
All of us, LGBT members included, will be seriously wounded and diminished if our Communion fractures any further. LGBT members in various parts of our Communion are at the present moment being physically wounded, their humanity diminished. Instead of seeking to resolve differences over the issue of homosexuality by splitting the Communion or reinforcing teaching which diminishes LGBT people the Anglican Communion should be working actively to oppose prejudice and remove punitive legislation from the statue book of every nation.
LGBT people are integral to the life of our Communion. We are present in every Province and church. We LGBT Anglicans are obedient to the call of Christ the Word Incarnate. We listen to the Bible and conform our lives to what God both offers and requires of us through the words and narratives of the Bible. LGBT Anglicans recognise each other in one fellowship when we see one another ‘standing under’ the word of Scripture. We consult and reflect together on the interpretation of Scripture and learn in that process. Dr Williams writes: “Understanding the Bible is not a private process or something to be undertaken in isolation by one part of the family. Radical change in the way we read cannot be determined by one group or tradition alone.” Change cannot be determined by one group alone. Neither can it be determined by the exclusion of particular groups. There is inadequate recognition of the failure to ensure that the whole Anglican family is able to determine change by ensuring that it is able to listen to the voices of LGBT people.
Conservatives in various parts of the church find it difficult to remain in communion with partnered LGBT people. The Lord has called us by his Word, we LGBT men and women, and raises us up in a ministry which can be recognised as performing the same tasks as heterosexuals – of teaching and pastoral care and admonition, of assembling God’s people for worship, above all at the Holy Communion. God provides what is needed for each local community, including the often fragile, hidden community of LGBT people.
Changing Attitude fears there is an assumption among some conservatives that partnered LGBT people cannot communicate the Good News of God in Christ. Dr Williams writes “When we are able to recognise biblical faithfulness and authentic ministry in one another, the relation of communion pledges us to support each other’s efforts to win people for Christ and to serve the world in his Name. Communion thus means the sharing of resources and skills in order to enable one another to proclaim and serve in this way.” Those who believe they can protect themselves from being in communion with partnered LGBT people delude themselves. Their dioceses and congregations, and even their leadership, includes partnered LGBT people. We are already in communion with each other and will remain so, whatever attempts are made to split the Communion apart.
Changing Attitude argues for the full inclusion of every bishop at the Lambeth Conference, including the Bishop of New Hampshire. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal that Bishop Gene Robinson could be present as a guest at some point or at some optional event is not acceptable. Bishop Gene is the only person among the 800 bishops of the Communion who is able to witness personally to the way in which God anoints and blesses the ministry of faithfully partnered LGBT people. He is not the only bishop who is gay or partnered, but the only honestly ordained and visible one.
Changing Attitude welcomes the Archbishop’s commitment to Lambeth as “a place where diversity of opinion can be expressed“, and where “there is no intention to foreclose the discussion – for example – of what sort of Covenant document is needed.” Lambeth needs to be open to the possibility of movement in bishops’ hearts and minds and the risk that God will change attitudes.
The experience of Changing Attitude’s work in the Church of England for the past 13 years leads us to endorse the Archbishop’s belief that is only in the context of prayer, mutual spiritual enrichment and development of ministry that divisive issues can usefully be addressed. Changing Attitude has engaged in fruitful, if unresolved, prayerful conversations with many who disagree with us. We know from this experience that more, not fewer, such encounters are needed. We accept the challenge “to pray seriously together in the hope of seeking a resolution that will be as widely owned as possible.” We cannot refuse God’s invitation to purse conversations with each other across our current divisions. Direct contact and open exchange of convictions are crucial. We want to extend our networks to help resource the “fruitful ways of carrying forward liaison with provinces whose policies cause scandal or difficulty to others.”
We LGBT Anglicans present the bishops of the Communion with a challenge by our very presence and our relationships. We ask the Communion questions about “fidelity to Scripture and identity in ministry and mission, not only about the one issue of sexuality” and “about what it means for the Anglican Communion to behave with a consistency that allows us to face, both honestly and charitably, the deeply painful question of who we can and cannot recognise as sharing the same calling and task.” We are not going away. We will slowly become more visible and vocal. We are already present in every Province of the Communion and will continue to be present in every Province, diocese or congregation that secedes. We are the children, parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, work colleagues and friends, present wherever Christians gather to worship God.
We live in Advent hope. We LGBT Anglicans know change is possible. God challenges and changes lives and God is challenging and changing our church.
Reverend Colin Coward
Director of Changing Attitude England