The Primates Oust The Episcopal Church (for now)

Ecclesiology Theology / Biblical Studies

At the recent meeting of the Anglican Primates, the issue of same-sex marriage rose to the surface. In a refreshingly conservative, faithful and courageous move, the Primates have issued a statement declaring that the Episcopal Church in America, because of its unilateral choice to part ways with the Anglican Communion by solemnising same-sex unions in contravention of both Scripture and the teaching of the Church (which welcomes all people and celebrates marriage as taught in Scripture), is no longer a representative of the Anglican Community. Things will remain that way for three years, giving the Episcopal Church a chance to get things in order.

From the Primates’ statement:

Recent developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage. Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.

The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.

In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.

It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

When somebody chooses to create this conflict inside the church, pitting themselves against church teaching and practice and in effect creating multiple parties within the church, leading others to follow their own vision, what should we do?

I have seen comments grieving that this move creates “division” or “disunity” in the church. This is not so, as the above statement expresses. The Anglican Communion is already a generous orthodoxy, allowing for a range of beliefs and practices within the parameters of historic Christianity. This move by the Primates is a response to the creation of disunity by those who want to change the church that already allows people a wide berth. The Episcopal Church in America created disunity, initiating practices and teachings that flatly contradict those of the Anglican Communion. When somebody chooses to create this conflict inside the church, pitting themselves against church teaching and practice and in effect creating multiple parties within the church, leading others to follow their vision, what should we do? Do we allow that destabilising influence to go unchecked? Do we just declare that we have to reduce the number of things that the church believes, so that we can include more practices as legitimate? Or do we say, as the Anglican Primates have said, that we want to maintain the internal unity of the church so that those churches who act in ways that create conflict with the church will have to mend their ways and come back into unity with the Church or leave? Integrity dictates the latter.

The Church has responsibilities to God before it has them to you.

It was put to me today that this sort of heavy-handedness prevents reform from taking place. This really isn’t true. If you think the church needs to change, make your case for reform. But if the church isn’t moved because they don’t think you have a biblical case, then the issue is not that they are closed to reform when necessary. The issue is that they believe you are mistaken about something important. Being open in principle to reform does not mean just rolling over every time anyone in your ranks says you should change. The Church has responsibilities to God before it has them to you.

Given the autonomy that member-churches of the Anglican Community have, Canterbury cannot simply dictate what the Episcopal Church in America does. But it can declare the terms on which it will have formal fellowship with churches, and that is what it has done here. Again, the Episcopal Church made the decision to pit itself against the beliefs and practices of the wider Anglican Communion. The biblical case has not been made to the satisfaction of the Primates (and my view is that it cannot be made). The Episcopal Church has therefore lost its status as a representative of the Anglican Community for three years, during which time it will need to search its collective soul about whether or not it wishes to re-align itself in terms of belief and practice, with the historic church, or remain apart permanently. I cannot stress this enough and I am happy to labour the point: The Episcopal Church created the rift. The Primates are really saying: Very well, you need to decide if this is what you want, but you need to understand that you’ve wandered from the Church.

Of course nobody should be rejoicing that matters have come to this so that such a strong move was necessary. But for some, including me, this move comes as a wave of reassurance that there really is “life in the old girl yet,” as I have said of Anglicanism before. Anglicanism is, in the view of some, a bastion of “anything goes” Christianity, especially as represented in the Episcopal Church in America. This isn’t really a fair characterisation of the Anglican Communion (as this decision reminds us), but it is what some people think.

But there are voices within the Church here that want the church to change to reflect their own values when it comes to humanity, love and marriage.

Like the Christian church from the beginning, the Anglican Church in New Zealand1 does not solemnise same-sex unions as marriage, because these unions fall outside of our understanding of what marriage is, an understanding that is plainly reflected in Scripture and always maintained by the Christian faith, as noted by the Primates in their statement. But there are voices within the Church here that want the church to change to reflect their own values when it comes to humanity, love and marriage. This is the reverse of what Christians should want. What we should want – acknowledging that we (and certainly I) fall short of it – is for us to be transformed through our unity with Christ and His Church, not for the Church to be changed until it more closely matches our supposedly enlightened selves.

Those who want to claim the Church as their own territory and transform it into a vehicle for their own cause are, tragically, pushing fine Christians out of the Church.

These liberalising tendencies make the Anglican Church in New Zealand a laughing stock among some Christians, and a cause for sorrow among others. Those who want to claim the Church as their own territory and transform it into a vehicle for their own cause are, tragically, pushing fine Christians out of the Church – Christians who have been made to feel that there is just no hope for Anglicanism. In the past I have called Christians like that to stay, and I reiterate that call now. Do not abandon ship, handing it over to anyone who wants to take the wheel. It is my hope that the decision of the Primates will give heart to many in my part of the world that collapse in the Anglican Church is not inevitable.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Full name: Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia []
{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Brown January 15, 2016, 3:03 pm

    An interesting development that resists the attached views which I cut and pasted from Boscoe Peter’s Liturgy blog (rather than linked because one I can do and the other…..)

    Much of the content (I think its very, very carefully worded) may be valid to some degree but should we celebrate all things or treat some as issues to be resolved because they are against scripture. The letter seems to reduce the sovereignty of God, we can do stuff and are “in” because we said the prayer, got baptised, told someone and so on. God’s election? Not so much.

    Homosexuality is just the latest poster child to be addressed and other things will follow. Sin should challenge us all and being comfortable in something against the club rules so to speak is not an excuse to continue in it. In this case it feels to me that the letter requires us to accept the sin as well as the person; to repent of the ”sin” of challenging a behaviour that is condemned in scripture. For me that goes too far and ignores Christ’s clear call – repent. This is darned tough because it feels like a sinner is judging another sinner (I’m hardly in a position to take the high ground) but I guess we are required to address these things with discernment and the words of scripture. Its clear that God will address it on the last day so pretending the church gives one an out clause is a bit short sighted. The words, ”Depart from me I never knew you”, will be the worst words you will ever hear.

    Anyway, here is what some want.

    Below is the text of the Open Letter sent to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on January 7th 2016 by 105 Senior Anglicans.

    You are invited to retrospectively add your own signature.

    The Rt Hon and Most Revd Justin Welby
    The Rt Hon and Most Revd Dr John Sentamu

    January 7th 2016

    Your Graces

    We the undersigned ask you, our Archbishops, to take an unequivocal message to your meeting of fellow Primates next week that the time has now come for:

    Acknowledgement that we, the Church, have failed in our duty of care to LGBTI members of the Body of Christ around the world. We have not loved them as we should, and have treated them as a problem to be solved rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ to be embraced and celebrated. We have made them feel second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, often abandoned and alone.
    Repentance for accepting and promoting discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, and for the pain and rejection that this has caused. We, the Church, need to apologise for our part in perpetuating rather than challenging ill-informed beliefs about LGBTI people, such as the slanderous view that homosexuals have a predisposition to prey on the young.
    We understand that the Primates come from a variety of contexts with differing ways of interpreting the Scriptures, but we urge you to be prophetic in your action and Christ-like in your love towards our LGBTI sisters and brothers who have been ignored and even vilified for too long.

    Please be assured of our prayers for you at this time, and that the world will know by our words and actions that everyone who is baptised into the faith is of equal value in our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Yours sincerely

  • Glenn January 15, 2016, 3:25 pm

    Thanks for that Brown (first name?)

    Although I wouldn’t have endorsed that letter because it is so vague that it means almost nothing, and can be construed to mean something I could never endorse, it’s important to remember that the Primates’ decision was about the issue of celebrating same-sex marriage. The whole question of welcoming / discriminating against people who identify as having a non-heterosexual orientation is another matter.

  • Brown January 16, 2016, 9:31 am

    I am Brown but don’t do first names on blogs. I’m happy to disclose to you via email if required.

    I accept what you say about the express purpose of the letter and its relationship to marriage (not knowing better) but its an opening to go further (hence my view its carefully worded) if the church eventually accepts it at face value and then tries to argue against the next loosely related demand on sexuality downstream. That just seems disingenuous to me and not what I would expect within the flock. I hate being cynical but in the world today its so easy to be that way and be right most of the time.

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