By Giles Goddard
Two years ago I was lucky enough to be able to spend a couple of weeks visiting Episcopalian churches in New York, Rhode Island, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco – and I also visited the Columbus General Convention in 2006. Both times, I left the US with a deep sense of gratitude at the generous and open welcome I’d received. But more, I also had a sense that in many ways the Episcopal Church (TEC) has a clearer understanding of what it means to be Anglican than the Church of England. Perhaps because TEC is a small church compared with some others, and perhaps because it’s had to forge its identity in a much more competitive arena than the C of E with its historic privileges and relationship with the State, TEC appears to me to have imbibed the breadth, the diversity and the challenge of Jesus Christ to bring the Gospel to ALL people. Justice and welcome go all the way down. Of course, that’s not to say that the Episcopal Church is perfect, but seems to me you certainly score highly on your theology of mission.
So I’ve been watching with increasing dismay as the way in which you try to live out your mission is relentlessly undermined by groups opposed to your work, and the way in which that has brought about the extraordinary and depressing attempts to isolate TEC within the Anglican communion simply because it is trying to live out its understanding of the inclusive Gospel. And, to a lesser extent, the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) – but for a host of reasons the situation the ACC faces is different.
Meanwhile, back in the UK we’ve been facing similar issues but dealing with them in a different way. As my American friends have often observed, we’re not as open as you; there’s a different relationship with the hierarchy and we tend to get on with things without being too public about them, while trying to work with the structures to bring about change. I don’t defend that – it’s just the way we are.
But that’s changing now. Not a moment too soon, you might say. Over the past few years different groups within the Church of England – Changing Attitude, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, Inclusive Church, Women and the Church, the Modern Churchpeople’s Union, Affirming Catholicism and many more from across the theological spectrum – have been working more and more closely together on a range of issues – for example, women bishops, the inclusion of people of colour, and of course questions of human sexuality. We’ve been coordinating our activities and sharing our vision, our knowledge and our experience. The Lambeth Conference in 2008 was an example of that – those of you who were there will remember the way in which progressive groups in the US, Canada and the UK tried to work together, and the challenges and learning processes which that involved!
On 27th July 2009 the Archbishop of Canterbury’s response to the General Convention in Anaheim was published. The immediate reaction, in the UK as much as in the USA, was one of dismay. While we understood what the Archbishop was seeking to do, the reflections contained a much clearer statement of his understanding of the place of LGBT people – or rather, the lack of place – within the Anglican Communion than we had previously heard, and they also seemed to acknowledge in a much more fatalistic way the prospect of a two-track communion.
A meeting already planned for the following Friday was quickly expanded and was made into an open meeting for anyone or any group concerned about the reflections and wishing to respond. It’s fair to say that the meeting was quite low key; there was a general feeling that once again LGBT Christians and their friends and colleagues had been shown to be excluded, and after years of trying different ways to end that exclusion this was a further rebuff.
However, there was also general agreement that a “tipping point” had been reached. Various concrete suggestions were made as to the way forward – for example, getting better statistics about the number of LGBT clergy and lay people in the church and how many same-sex blessings and thanksgivings have been carried out in England; raising the visibility of LGBT clergy and their supportive congregations; forming closer links with TEC; and a joint Statement.
The statement “On the Archbishop’s Reflections” was drafted the next day and published the following Tuesday with the signatures of 13 groups from across the Church of England, and the tacit support of several others. It is only part of a work in progress, and we are meeting again in September to take forward the other ideas. But it’s the first time we in the C of E have made so public a joint stand on these questions, and we hope that this collaborative working will continue to bear fruit.
What of the future? We certainly welcome better and stronger links with the US and Canada – as we say in the statement “We will seek to strengthen the bonds of affection which exist between those in all the Churches of the Anglican Communion who share our commitment to the full inclusion of all of God’s faithful.”
The big question facing us all is how we respond to the suggestion of a two-track Communion. The feeling within the progressive groups of the Church of England is that such a thing should be resisted, and if the Covenant were to bring this about it, too, should be resisted. However, and this is a new thought for me, there may be another way. The Episcopal Church in Anaheim passed various resolutions which reaffirmed its inclusive polity and brought greater clarity about the way forward TEC may take. In that context, and having passed those resolutions, what is to stop TEC signing the Covenant? We are awaiting a further draft, but unless it contains radical strengthening of any judicial measures, it seems to me that TEC would be able to sign it, as a sign of its mutual commitment and in the context of its present policy of ensuring that it is open to LGBT people both single and in relationships. Result; a Communion strengthened and affirmed in its breadth and diversity and once again bearing a global witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And for the Church of England? We still have a long way to go. The measures to bring about full recognition of LGBT Christians are still a few years off, and as presently drafted the Covenant might delay those measures even further. Maybe the Church of England shouldn’t sign it. In which case, I suppose, we would be outside the main body while TEC would be inside. Now there’s a thought to conjure with.....
One thing’s clear. We have to move on from this debate and find a way to live together and acknowledge difference, as we have on so many other issues – so that the churches in the Anglican Communion can be free to speak with credibility once again about the other, so urgent, issues and challenges which face us all.
The Rev. Canon Giles Goddard is priest in charge designate at St John’s Church, Waterloo, London, and chair of Inclusive Church.