I’ve received a number of queries from non-Anglican, non-church-type friends asking what the recent kerfuffle in Canterbury is all about. Here’s my best shot at explaining a complex situation in simple terms….
There are about forty countries in the world that have church denominations with specific historical and cultural links to the national church of England. Literally, the Church of England, established in law as the privileged state religion, some of whose top clergy have guaranteed seats in Britain’s House of Lords. Well, the Grand Poobah of them all is the Archbishop of Canterbury and he (always a he, so far) is seen as the figurehead not only for English Anglicans, but also for the entire world-wide network of Anglican churches. He’s not like a Pope – doesn’t have any legal church authority beyond his own country – but everyone respects his position anyway (but not like the Pope…).
Every now and again the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC if you like) invites all the other national leaders (“primates”; go figure) to get together for a chin-wag about whatever issues may be of concern to their international network, or Communion. For roughly twenty years the issue that has been uppermost in the minds of many of these men (always men, except recently one woman; USA! USA!) is this: “what are we going to do about all the gays and lesbians and queers coming out of the closet and claiming their place in the church, of late even openly becoming clergy (gasp!) and – USA! again – having their same-sex marriages blessed by the church (double gasp!).”
To be fair, you can imagine there are plenty of countries in the world where the idea of LGBTQ rights is still very much an alien thought. And with modern communications being what they are, when Anglicans in one part of the world do something controversial then Anglicans in other parts of the world will invariably have some explaining to do to their neighbours. National autonomy is recognized and appreciated but a consistent, shared voice is easiest to defend. The various expressions of the Anglican church, from one nation to the next, have been increasingly and publicly out of step with one another.
But there’s more at play than just local understandings of homosexuality. Another factor in all of this is the way the Bible is understood and how it informs the way we should live. Some Anglicans insist on what they think is a literal reading of scripture: the words as they appear on the page are, they believe, clear and unambiguous. Just do what the Bible says. Lemon squeezy.
On the other hand, there are those who prefer a more nuanced approach: the words of scripture are not always plain and simple, they say, and in any case should be understood in the first place as a record of how people across many societies and centuries came to some knowledge of God. Those ancient ideas certainly inform our own faith experience but we are not necessarily bound by them; we need to take their wisdom and adapt it to our own context. Furthermore, the Bible is not the only way God speaks to us; we hear God’s voice in reason (science) and tradition (experience) as well. If what we think the Bible says is at odds with science and experience then there’s a good chance the problem is that we’ve been reading scripture incorrectly, and that is dishonouring to God.
And so to the meeting in Canterbury: As you might expect, the leaders of the various national expressions of Anglicanism are also varied in the way they view homosexuality in general, and in the way they read the Bible. A minority of national churches, mostly of the northern hemisphere, are increasingly fully inclusive of LGBTQ Christians and in the habit of reading scripture in the light of other evidences of God’s word. But a majority, primarily “southern” Anglican churches, believe homosexuality is outright wrong, and back up their assertion with a handful of scripture texts which, in their view, plainly say so.
In the end, the American expression of Anglicanism, The Episcopal Church, which has been the most progressive of all in making room for LGBTQ Christians, got their wings clipped. For three years they will still be allowed to come to the party but they won’t be making any speeches. They won’t be allowed to hold representative functions on the world stage on behalf of the Anglican Communion.
This makes the progressives sigh in frustration and the conservatives sigh in relief. And it buys the ABC more time to figure out his next move.
It’s a typical Anglican fudge.