With so much attention, it’s no surprise that word leaked out before the official announcement. The world’s gathering of archbishops and chief bishops (“primates”) of the Anglican Church that concluded today at Canterbury, England is known as the Anglican Communion Primates Meeting. As meetings go, this is no trifling matter. Anglicans are the world’s third largest Christian denomination with a membership estimated at 85 million members…but it is now a house divided unto itself. The Primates Meeting ended in deep discord regarding LGBTI persons, and same-sex marriage in particular.
This rift has been growing for some time, and some observers are taking modest consolation in the fact that the most conservative (dare I say homophobic?) element – the bishops from Africa – did not walk out of the meeting in protest. Well, one did. Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of the Anglican Church of Uganda (pictured above) left the meeting on Jan. 12th. I have deep feelings for Uganda, a country I have been visiting regularly since 1982 and in which I have lived and worked, but there is no denying that Uganda has acquired global pariah status for its pervasively toxic attitudes towards its own LGBTI citizens. When it comes to attempts at a civil and caring discussion on LGBTI concerns, and on the vexing question of the reality of human dignity as a universal value, Ugandans are frequently seen “leaving the meeting”…
The roots of this institutional rancor come from the courageous and – to my mind – demonstrably Christian position taken by the American Episcopal Church, which is part of the global Anglican faith. At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention last June, delegates felt led by the spirit to change canonical language that to date had defined marriage as only being between a man and a woman, and they took a similarly affirming position in support of the dignity and humanity of transgender and intersex persons. Thanks to their leadership and compassion, the affirming door of the Episcopal Church now welcomes same-sex couples and all who identify as L,G, B, T, or I. Thankfully, at least in the United States that is how it will remain. The words of America’s Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry are worth pondering:
“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…Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.”
This inspired and principled stance has now been rebuked by a majority of the Anglican primates. Not only that, but the circle of exclusion has now been expanded not only to affect those who have borne such exclusion for far too long – LGBTI Anglicans and their allies – but to the American Episcopal Church itself. For the next three years at least (and realistically for much longer) Episcopalians will no longer be able to serve on certain Anglican committees. They will also be excluded from voting while they are with their fellow Anglican bishops. In short, they have been institutionally silenced, even if I know that their voices will continue to be heard in other venues.
I am not an Episcopalian, although that was the faith in which I was raised. Instead, for the past 26 years I have been and remain a Quaker, which is another denomination arising from Christianity, but now open to many travelers on various spiritual journeys. We have no creeds or rigid doctrine, and that absence makes it very confusing for many outside of Quakerism to know who we are – at least until they spend some time with us, or come to know us by our demonstrated engagement on social justice issues. As a Quaker, I am not burdened by a weighty institutional hierarchy of tiers of archbishops, bishops, priests, and other clergy. Instead, each Quaker congregation (known as a “Meeting”) finds its own way to respond in alignment with a vibrant body of shared Quaker values and beliefs, but we have not been immune from deep internal angst when it comes to LGBTI issues. People of faith around the world are being challenged as never before to see and welcome God’s presence in their own people – all of their own people – instead of limiting their embrace to those who pass the test of certain misconstrued or misguided words of scriptures and doctrines.
The global struggle for an unqualified commitment to universal human dignity, and all that flows from such a world view, is a struggle fought on many fields of battle. Arguably, this one battle has been lost for now, and given the entrenched and repugnant homophobic attitudes of so many Africans (and others) it is unlikely that we will see positive change any time soon. What I – a transgender Quaker woman – am finding so hard in all of this however is the overt self-righteousness of these “men of faith” (yes, the African bishops also oppose female ordination). By clothing their intolerance and disdain for LGBTI persons in the guise of Christian values, I am left to wonder whether we are talking about the same Jesus on that cross.
I am also left to ponder what few options remain for committed and faithful Anglicans in Africa who happen to be LGBTI, or allies of LGBTI persons…or people who value the principle of universal human dignity.