A response to the Primates communique
February 22, 2007
At the conclusion of their recent meeting in Tanzania, the Primates of the Anglican Communion proposed a series of steps toward reconciling Anglican churches alienated over issues of human sexuality, interpretation of Scripture, and Anglican theology and governance. Though some of the Primates’ conclusions respect the integrity and autonomy of the Episcopal Church, other aspects of their proposal run counter to our Church’s way of life and its interpretation of the Gospel.
The Primates’ Communique outlines a process for a “pastoral scheme” aimed at reconciling the Episcopal Church with other Anglican churches that are opposed to the Episcopal Church’s actions in the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire and its response to the Windsor Report; and at repairing the rift between Episcopal bishops and dioceses supporting the Windsor proposals and the Episcopal Church’s leaders and majority of dioceses and bishops that support the actions of the 2003 and 2006 General Conventions.
While several encouraging actions were taken by the Primates—not the least being the election of our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, to the five-member Standing Committee of the Primates —the Primates’ understanding of Episcopal Church polity and their recommendations for reconciling the current tensions are worrisome. Unlike several other Provinces of the Communion—particularly those in the Global South network—the Episcopal Church governs its life through a dispersed authority involving not only its bishops, but other clergy and lay representatives to its councils and General Convention. Asking the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops to “make an unequivocal common consent” to not proceed with authorizing rites of blessing for same-gender unions, and not consent to the election and consecration of a candidate for bishop who is living in a same-gender union ignores our constitutional processes that require the participation of the full Church (through Diocesan Conventions, Provincial Synods and General Convention) in decisions ordering the life, work and worship of the Church. The House of Bishops may issue recommendations and teachings, but it is the responsibility of the Church as a whole, meeting in General Convention, to decide how to order its life.
Similarly, to constitute a nominating committee for an Episcopal primatial vicar composed exclusively of bishops (and only those sympathetic to the Windsor Report recommendations) as the Primates propose also violates our polity of shared authority. The bishops may produce a response to the Primates’ request by September 30, 2007, but a definitive answer on the Church’s stance on same-gender unions and the acceptance of gay and lesbian candidates for episcopal ministry will have to await the next regular General Convention in 2009, or a Special Convention. Or perhaps later.
The journey towards the admission of women to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion has taken over a century and is still unfinished (12 provinces still don’t ordain women priests, and only three have women bishops). Full acceptance of gay and lesbian members in all ministry of the Church may take much longer. Why is there such urgent need for an unequivocal resolution on sexual orientation issues, while accommodating ambiguity (for thirty years now) in the acceptance of women priests and bishops? The Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral—considered to be the most succinct statement of four foundational Anglican principles and adopted as such by the 1888 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops—recognizes the importance of the episcopate, “locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into unity of his Church.” The action of the 2003 General Convention regarding Bishop Gene Robinson, as well for that matter as the 1989 election and consecration of Bishop Barbara Harris as suffragan bishop of Massachusetts (first woman to be ordained bishop in the Anglican Communion), are examples of how the Episcopal Church has embraced and lived out this precept.
To attempt the application of extra-provincial structures and processes to the Episcopal Church’s constitutional and communal framework contradicts the Anglican principle of “autonomy in communion” embodied in the Quadrilateral. It also runs counter to our culture as an American Church, one in which the principles of freedom, democracy, conscience, compassion and equality of condition and opportunity are held to be sacrosanct and intrinsic to our identity.
Additionally, the Primates give scant attention in their recommendations to other key provisions of the Windsor Report and the Lambeth Resolution I.10, namely to listen to the experience of gay and lesbian persons, and assure them of the church’s pastoral care for them. No allowance is given in the “pastoral scheme” proposed by the Primates for the voices of Episcopal gay and lesbian members to be heard; yet, the Primates provide ample opportunity for participation in the scheme by congregations, clergy and lay people alienated from the Episcopal Church. This is as if South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission barred black South Africans from testimony, while freely admitting white Afrikaners. Healing and reconciliation is needed not only between the Episcopal Church and those opposed to the General Convention actions; but also between the Church (including its disaffected members) and its gay and lesbian members who have been denied the full sacraments of the Church.
While recognizing that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori “was duly elected” according to our constitution and canons, and respecting the “proper constitutional autonomy” of all Communion churches, the Primates offer no clear-cut directive to primates and bishops to abstain from interventions in other dioceses and provinces. Only when the proposed pastoral scheme is approved and operating are renegade primates constrained from intervening in another province. Furthermore, the Primates leave ambiguous the fate of unauthorized jurisdictions such as the Anglican Mission in America and CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America), ventures respectively of the Anglican Church of Rwanda and the Anglican Church of Nigeria, stating that the proposed pastoral council should negotiate with the two primates to “to find a place for them within these provisions.”
By narrowing their focus to the Episcopal Church the Primates make it seem as if the Episcopal Church alone is struggling with the implications of a fully inclusive church; ignoring the efforts of the Anglican Church of Canada and even the Church of England in reaching out to their gay and lesbian members. This approach paints a false picture of the Primates united in disapprobation of our Church when in fact the Primates of Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa are sympathetic with our position.
In issuing what is essentially an ultimatum, the Primates are assuming more authority than is accorded them in our Communion’s current structure and polity. The Communion has four entities where its faith and order are decided—in addition to the Primates: the Anglican Consultative Council (over 100 clergy and lay representatives from the 38 provinces), the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops (the oldest deliberative body of what the Primates term the “Four Instruments of Unity”), and the Archbishop of Canterbury—and of the four the Primates are the newest and most exclusive (understanding the Archbishop of Canterbury’s unique role as primus inter pares and convener). Before the Windsor Report recommendations can be understood to be “the most clear and comprehensive principles” for governing the Communion’s life, our Church must engage this debate in its member provinces’ synods and assemblies, and then at the Lambeth Conference and in the Anglican Consultative Council which follows it. In fact, the Primates at their 2005 meeting in Dromatine, Northern Ireland charged the ACC with responsibility for initiating a listening process on the issues surrounding the role of gay and lesbians in the church and reporting its work to the Lambeth Conference of 2008. The present course outlined in the Communique effectively annuls this charge, and divests the other governing entities of responsibility for determining the parameters for Communion membership.
Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, in her reflection on the Primates Meeting, asks that both sides of this dispute consider a season of fasting, refraining from authorizing rites of blessing for samegender unions, and from crossing diocesan boundaries to carry out unauthorized ministries. Those who seek full inclusion of gay and lesbian members in the Episcopal Church, “do so out of an undeniable passion for justice, others seek a fidelity to the tradition that cannot understand or countenance the violation of what the tradition says about sexual ethics. Each is being asked to forbear for a season.”
Patience is appropriate on matters affecting the fundamental nature of a faith community’s identity, but we should not allow such concern to unduly compromise our efforts to carry out the Gospel mandate of restoring all people to the unity of God in Christ. I would argue that our Church has prayerfully discerned its understanding of human sexuality in God’s kingdom, and exercised considerable forbearance in living out this understanding since at least the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Though the tensions had been building since the mid1970s, the 1998 conference precipitated the current conflict with the bishops’ adoption of Resolution I.10. This resolution (a significant diversion in tone and intent from the report of the Lambeth section charged with addressing human relations and social justice), reaffirms the traditional understanding of marriage, and advises against same-gender blessings, but also commits the Communion’s bishops to listen “to the experience of homosexual persons” and assure them “that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.” In the years since Lambeth, the effort expended by the Communion’s bishops to this listening process has fallen woefully short of the expectation in I.10. If we are to enter a fast let it be one in which we truly hear the voices of those who have personally suffered the consequences of this forbearance: our gay and lesbian members.
As bishop of Chicago I will not sacrifice the gifts we enjoy as an inclusive church so that we might conform to a doctrinal uniformity that is antithetical to our historic identity and experience. I will continue to invite gay and lesbian Christians into the full life and ministry of our diocesan community, and celebrate their gifts of ministry and covenanted relationships. Admittedly, there are those within our Church, both in our diocese and the larger Communion, who prefer we suspend our efforts at full inclusion for the sake of a seat in the Communion’s councils. That approach, which we engaged in 2005 by our voluntary withdrawal from the Anglican Consultative Council, and institution of a moratorium on episcopal consents, has done little to increase sympathy and understanding of our church culture and experience among our critics. To continue in this fashion would undermine our integrity as a Spirit-led community, and constitute a moral injustice for our gay and lesbian members. I, for one, am not prepared to make that sacrifice. I continue to be profoundly grateful for the contributions of our gay and lesbian members, lay and ordained, in our diocesan life.
My hope and prayer for our church is that we continue our witness for inclusion, and not allow our efforts to bring the Good News to those in need, here in our local communities, or in the wider world, to be distracted or hindered by this present dispute. The world is hurting and we must respond. On Sunday, February 25 I will be traveling to New Orleans to join other members of the board of Episcopal Relief and Development to see firsthand how our Church is helping in the Katrina recovery effort. A number of our congregations have formed long-term covenants with their counterparts in Louisiana and Mississippi, expanding the vision of our strategic plan which calls on congregations to share resources and talents with each other “so that each congregation is in partnership with at least one other in substantive areas of ministry.”
Shortly after my return I will be heading to South Africa to attend the “Towards Effective Anglican Mission” conference in Boxburg, South Africa. Convened by South Africa’s Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, the conference will focus on how Anglicans can effect change on poverty, international debt, AIDS/HIV through advocacy and the Millennium Development Goals. The situation we face is dire, as presented by Archbishop Ndungane: “”In our world there is global apartheid where the rich are getting ‘stinkingly’ rich and the poor are getting desperately poor. We know that there are more than 800 million people living in poverty in the world ... this is not only immoral, it is a sin, it is evil.”
Building on the generosity of our Convention Eucharist offering and the many tangible efforts in mutual ministry with our companion dioceses and the people of the Gulf Coast, I am confident we will do all we can to redress the immorality that supersedes our present polity dispute: Our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves. Through our continued faithfulness to being a Church of compassion, shared authority, mutual ministry, justice and respect for the dignity of every human being, we will be a witness to the world of an Episcopal Church committed to incarnating Christ’s new commandment.
May this Lent be an opportunity for all of us to discern more deeply God’s Word and call to service in this broken world.
Yours in Christ,
William D. Persell
Bishop of Chicago