Last month, the senior bishops (known as “Primates”) from the provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury. Their official communiqué records the meeting’s actions, but a reflection by the Most Reverend Philip Richardson, one of the Archbishops of New Zealand, describes its flavor: “The listening was intense. Exhausting. Hour after hour, day after long day.” I can only imagine.
The Primates gathered d to discuss matters of concern to our global church. Human sexuality and the Episcopal Church’s recent decision to allow same-sex marriage were first among those issues, but they were not the only ones. The Primates told each other how Anglicans are being affected by rising sea levels in Pacific Rim provinces, by cultural loss in Arctic provinces, by desertification and deforestation in African and South American provinces, by human trafficking and gender abuse in provinces throughout the developing world. The Primates held in their hands and in their hearts a broken world that must have seemed especially heavy.
As you may have read in the news, the Primates have censured the Episcopal Church for its stance on human sexuality. It is important to note that the Anglican Communion remains intact, that the Episcopal Church remains a member of the Anglican Communion, and that the Primates have recommitted themselves to ongoing dialogue in the years ahead. However, as I understand it, for the next three years, members of the Episcopal Church will not serve on certain internal and external committees of the Anglican Communion, and will not participate in making doctrinal decisions for the Communion.
Faithful people can and will disagree on whether the Primates’ censure is appropriate or inappropriate, on whether it went too far or not far enough. I am more interested in the opportunity for grace with which their censure presents us.
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church has been discussing human sexuality in one way or another for almost fifty years, far longer than most if not all of our Anglican Communion partners. We have not always been grace-filled in the way we shared these conversations with our partners, and they have not always been grace-filled in the way they responded to them. There is hurt here, deep hurt, and it cuts both ways.
Words have become violent weapons in our disagreements about human sexuality. Statements are far easier to issue than relationships are to repair, but a commitment to reconciliation lies at the very heart of our faith. As the Prayer Book teaches us, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” As Anglicans from around the world lose their homes to climate change and warfare, as they lose their lives to trafficking and abuse, grace is committing ourselves to serve them despite our differences. Grace is finding the strength to put our swords away, as Jesus asked Peter to do, so that our hands and hearts can be free to cradle a broken world.
Archbishop Williamson summarizes the Primates’ meeting in this way: “We faced a simple choice: to stay inside the room and work with these enormous differences of view – or to walk away from each other. We chose to stay.” That’s grace – challenging, difficult, and exhausting, yet thoroughly amazing grace.
Church of the Holy Communion has not yet begun its conversation about human sexuality, but I have promised that it will be grace-filled – paced, honest, faithful, intelligent, and truly respectful of all views. This parish church has found a way to pray together despite our differences, and we will continue to do so, modeling grace and refusing to walk away.