As the conference in Canterbury comes to its end, you can almost hear the disappointment in some quarters that there has not been a split, that there have not been any hissy-fits, and that none of the participants have gone to the Press with their side of the story. That, of course, has not prevented parts of the press from hyperventilating.
The Rev Giles Fraser, glorying in his ‘loose canon’ by-line, has shown how loosely he sits with both Anglican rules and common sense. The meeting has decided to sanction the Episcopal Church for breaking with our common teaching on matters of same-sex marriage. I am very disappointed that instead of accepting this, so many of those who support the Episcopalians, have had their own hissy-fits, with Fraser being the most ridiculous, mounting an ‘argument’ that would disgrace a five-year old by tweeting:
So given choice between siding with those who want to lock gay people in prison, and those who want to marry them, we chose … (slaps head)
Frankly, his nanny probably should do just that on the old-fashioned principle it might knock some sense into the silly man (for the humourless, this is meant as a joke, get someone to explain the concept to you if you don’t understand). The tidal wave of huffiness from advocates of the Episcopalian position suggests a want of humility and Christian understanding which is worrying: they have not got they want and they are throwing their toys from the pram and calling nanny a bigot. It is hard not to see an underlying cultural imperialism here. How dare these Africans insist on their understanding of what the Church has always taught? I saw one person comment that this ‘takes us back to the 1950s’. Again, the lack of perspective is startling. Until a decade ago there was no ‘right’ to same sex partnerships in the UK, and same sex marriage is an even more recent arrival. It helps no one to brand all those who support the traditional Church understanding of these things as ‘bigots’ or suggest they all want to ‘lock gay people in prison’. (Which is not to say that in some African countries there are not such people).
We can contrast such peevishness with the magisterial attitude of the Archbishop of Canterbury – and I use the word deliberately. We Anglicans have no defined magisterium, we proceed from tradition, Scripture and reason, and at Canterbury this week, Archbishop Justin seems to have provided a wonderful example of real Christian leadership. There has been no shooting from the mouth to the press, no playing games via the media. Instead there has been a deeply prayerful attempt to get those with very differing views on these matters into the same space to see whether, with the help of the Holy Ghost, a way forward could be found.
As I suggested on Monday, the omens were not favourable. On the Episcopalian side there was what we have already seen, a determination to play the ‘people’s feelings will be hurt’ card, and a denial that active homosexuality was considered sinful in the teaching of the Church – even though it was and is. On the other side, the GAFCON group (Global Anglican Future Conference) wanted real sanctions placed on the Episcopalians, with a threat to walk out if they did not get their own way.
From friends who were there, I gather that there was a deeply prayerful atmosphere in which everyone in their different groups was able to put forward their views, and that, on the whole, this worked in so far there were real opportunities for prolonged attempts for those present to place this single issue into the wider context of all the things which the Church has to do in this broken world. In the end there was an agreement to recognise some actual facts, most notably that the Episcopalian approval of gay marriage was ‘a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching’ of the majority of Anglicans. Anyone whose feeling are hurt by a statement of the facts might consider whether such obvious moral blackmail amounts to anything more than that; it is profoundly unimpressive. The Americans went it alone, caused breaks in their own communion, and essentially told the rest of us they knew best and were so rich they would do as they liked. They cloaked this in the secular language of ‘gay rights’, wisely (from their own point of view) choosing to ignore the place of tradition in Anglican teaching.
And what is this dreadful sanction which has caused the hissy-fits – it is that Episcopalians ‘no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies,’ and have the equivalent of observer status in Anglican commissions. Yes, that’s right, no one is saying that gay people should be locked up or persecuted, the conference is simply saying that the Episcopalians have broken with the practices of good fellowship and for three years will not be representing us at various meetings.
I daresay that the hissy fits come from not getting their own way, and to a group that loves it so much it was willing to defy the rest of the Anglican Communion, it must come as a shock to realise that they can neither bully nor blackmail the rest of us.
I say all of this as someone who, as some of you know (and have criticised me for it) is not unsympathetic to the arguments which point in favour of accepting same-sex marriage. But being open to the arguments on both sides actually, for me, means just that. It means not insisting I am right and aligning myself with a secular mindset to get my way, it means being as sensitive to the views of others as I would want them to be to mine. And, most of all, it means having the humility to accept that my Church works in a prayerful way to find ways of going forth in a mission much wider than this single issue, and that when its primates make a decision, not to throw my toys out of the pram. It would also have entailed not being triumphalist had the arguments come out the other way. We are Christians, we face the problems of a broken and messy world, which include our own fallen natures. I am proud of my Church, and never more so than now.