Reaching Across Difference
I am writing this from the Lambeth Conference of bishops from across the Anglican Communion, in Canterbury, England, where questions of conflict have been very much on our minds. Some of that deliberation has centered on differences and conflicts within the Anglican Communion itself. This has mostly to do with conflicting convictions regarding human sexuality, particularly the ordination of LGBTQ people and the marriage of same-sex couples. The Episcopal Church, together with Anglicans in Canada, Brazil, New Zealand, and other churches across the communion, have passed canons and adopted practices which provide for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people and the availability of the sacramental life to all people. This has all been a profound blessing to our church. Yet we know that across the wider communion we are in the minority. Just days before the Lambeth Conference opened, we learned that an effort would be made to have this conference re-state an earlier Lambeth resolution which declared marriage to exist only for a man and a woman and disallowed same-sex marriages. This came on top of an earlier directive that the spouses of LGBTQ bishops would neither receive invitations to Lambeth nor be permitted to participate fully in the events surrounding the conference. We all arrived at Lambeth with some sense of foreboding about renewed intentions to anathematize the American church and the LGBTQ people in our community.
The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church met twice after we arrived here to talk about how we might respond to these measures, and how we might act when the offending actions were brought to the floor. In the end, the statements in question were rewritten, and then rewritten again, until in their final form we Episcopalians were able to support a new mind of the communion which would allow the Episcopal Church to continue to live in freedom, and our inclusion of LGBTQ people to remain within our polity and life without censure. The leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury proved to be central to this work, and a public address he gave this week articulated beautifully what it means for the churches within the Anglican Communion to live in relationship with one another across and despite differences. And there are differences. I think we were all struck by the quality of conversation and the willingness of bishops from everywhere in the communion to listen to one another with respect. Still, the opposition of other churches and bishops within our communion to the more progressive practices and beliefs of the Episcopal Church was driven home to us in Bible studies, in private conversations, in debates, and most shockingly, in the refusal of some bishops to take and receive the Eucharist together with LGBTQ bishops and with other bishops who support the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ people.
This has been the third Lambeth Conference in a row to be largely characterized by the cultural and theological differences over human sexuality which divide the communion. What made a difference this time was the movement or evolution in the thinking of the archbishop of Canterbury, happening right before our eyes, which brought a steady hand to our leadership and at least for the moment, laid this conflict to something like rest. But no one thinks we are not going to have to revisit these conflicts again in the life of the church and in future conferences.
But this conference has focused on other, and horrifying, issues of conflict as well, that touch deeply on the lives of many of our member churches across the communion. The Anglican Church carries out its life in a number of countries which exist in long-term states of war and violence. So much of our prayers and presentations had to do with the deep suffering of our brothers and sisters across the world for whom survival itself is a daily, painful struggle. And we talked a lot about the responsibility of the church to make a witness in all these places.
A bishop in my Bible study group is from a diocese in South Sudan, which has been riven by war and violence for years and years. In part of our conversation two days ago, he talked about the far too common events of young girls, even under ten years old, subjected to rape by gangs of soldiers. It was humbling to listen to this good man, called to serve as bishop among a people so thoroughly and constantly traumatized by war and violence, who visibly carries the weight of his peoples’ history on his shoulders. But he talked about the successful efforts the church has made to guarantee prompt medical and psychological care for these young girls, and the ways in which their communities have gathered them in, cared for them, and sheltered them through their suffering. He told us that these girls have no stigma attached to them, and they strive to help them return to their lives in health and strength. This bishop and the Christians he serves have been successful in ensuring that the perpetrators of these assaults are being arrested and tried for their crimes. They are doing what they can, and what they are doing in good and healthful and true to the Gospel.
I was humbled to hear his account, and proud of him, but it was also a reminder that we live in a broken world, marked by violence and the abuse which people inflict on one another. That violence happens in ways large and small, in America and across the world; in families and communities and churches. But part of the witness of this conference has been the evidence of good people, filled with the Holy Spirit, inspired by the love of God, reaching across difference, forgiving the sins of others, caring for all the little ones of God, and binding up the wounds of a world of suffering. This is what we are meant to do and to be. It is the Gospel life and the Gospel call. These have not been easy days at Lambeth, but it has been an inspiration to see the Gospel flowering among us. To see Christ in one another.