TEC (The Episcopal Church) and the Primates

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

January 24, 2016

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last week the Primates, or heads of the various churches in our Anglican Communion, met in Canterbury, England.  Canterbury is the city where the first Roman missionary, Augustine, planted the church in England around the year 600 AD.  Since then Canterbury has been a pilgrimage site and the site of one of the most magnificent late-Gothic cathedrals anywhere.

 Augustine came into a land of great diversity.  The Celts living in Britain had already been introduced to Christianity several centuries earlier.  The Saxons and Angles, Jutes and Vikings were to begin their migrations onto British soil soon.  England was to be a place united by Christianity yet retaining individual accents and ways of thought peculiar to the various peoples who settled there.  Our Bishop Douglas sums it up this way: the church in England has been an institution of both universality and particularity. 

You may remember the news stories that came out last week. They reported that The Episcopal Church (TEC) was disciplined for last summer’s change in Canon Law that allowed priests to officiate at the weddings of same-sex couples.  Now, many of the heads of churches from the Southern Hemisphere and elsewhere were particularly offended by this because they’re still dealing with laws in their countries that outlaw homosexuality. 

And so the Primates voted last week that for a period of three years we are not to represent the Anglican Communion at ecumenical or interfaith gatherings, and that our voices are to be silenced for these three years on any internal bodies of the Communion—such as the Anglican Consultative Council, on which our bishop serves.

Now the scholars of all things churchy are already beginning to debate the question of whether or not the Primates have the authority to discipline one of the churches in the Communion.  And I’m not going to dwell on that here. 

Instead I’d like to talk about some deeper, underlying issues.

The first one, of course, is the Episcopal Church’s evolution over the last several decades toward full inclusion of homosexual persons into the life of the church / and into the sacraments—including, of course, ordination and matrimony.

Our culture has been changing around us very, very quickly, helped by TV shows and movies and the internet.  And the church has struggled with cultural change and lags behind it.  It takes time to evaluate if something seems to be of God or not.  We don’t want to be rash in adopting things just because they happen to be trending on Twitter. 

So for decades we’ve listened to our LGBT brothers and sisters (do you know what that means—LGBT?) as they spoke of the pain that the church has brought them because of exclusion and condemnation.  Many of us have gone through personal journeys of transformation on the issue.  I can say that I was helped by knowing personally several LGBT folks.  I also continued to ask myself how anyone would choose a lifestyle that made them outcasts.  The only answer I could come up with was that it wasn’t a choice.  It was set at the time of conception.  It also helped me to know a family member who was different from the time he was 2 or 3 years old. 

Add that to the fact that we are all made in God’s image.  And to quote the old saying, “God doesn’t make junk.”


I do think that my own transformation has paralleled the church’s transformation and change of heart.  Most—not all—Episcopal priests are in this place now.  Some will still refuse to officiate at a same-sex wedding.  And the church respects that.  Some of us here today may still be very uncomfortable with the topic.  So be it.  It’s the role of the Holy Spirit to guide us and help us grapple with these essential questions of anthropology and theology.  And the Spirit seems to be moving us along at quite different rates. 

*  *  *

Now-- just as the church in England has always been a church united despite its differences, so also today we see the Anglican Communion, worldwide, united but also very much split apart on some of these kinds of issues that run deep.

In the mid 1970’s the Communion’s 38 churches almost broke apart because of women’s ordination.  Now it’s the issue of full inclusion of LGBT people.  Isn’t it interesting that all this angst arises in issues of gender and sexuality?  We’d probably do well to think about that some more.

It’s interesting also to note that the only Primate to walk out of the meeting and refuse to talk was the Archbishop of Uganda.  It might help us to realize the delicate position he was in.  It’s more than just a personal reaction. 

In Uganda it’s a criminal offense for two men to have carnal relations.  And so as an article on www.episcopalcafe.com recently stated, “In countries like this, the Church could not remain a credible force in the way it is needed, effective in social action and promoting health care, if it were suddenly to come out campaigning for gay rights.”  [Ruth Gledhill, “The sacrificial grace of Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church,” www.episcopalcafe.com, Jan. 15, 2016]

And of course that’s so very difficult for our own LGBT community to hear and to try to accept.


 OK so I want to stop being so technical / and have us consider the question—what are we going to do now?  How shall we react to what happened at the Primates’ Meeting? 

As I shared with you last week my first reaction was to do a lot of eye-rolling and snarky thinking like “Well, why don’t we just pull our money and our aid out of those countries and see how they like it?”  I was all for financial blackmail…it wasn’t pretty what was going around in my head.  To drop a line from Nadia Bolz-Weber, “It’s an inelegant thing to be a clergy person with an anger problem.”  [Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints, p. 89.]

But it helped me to hear the comments of our new Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael Curry.  They were so very much in line with the passage from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus quoted in today’s gospel story. Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read the Scripture that turned out to be his mission statement--and the mission of the Church to come after him.  Remember that soaring passage?

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We, the Church, have God’s Spirit upon us by virtue of our baptisms.  We are sent out to bring good news to the poor, to free those who have been bound, to help those blinded / to see the light.  We are sent out into the world to let the people who are oppressed by culture and prejudice go free.  We are sent to proclaim God’s favor to all people.

And Michael Curry splendidly responded to the Primates’ statement this way—quote--  “I stand before you as your brother.  I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society.  And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.  The pain for many will be real.  But God is greater than anything.  I love Jesus and I love the church.  I am a Christian in the Anglican way.  And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am walking together with you as fellow Primates in the Anglican family.”—unquote.  [Ibid.]

The episcopalcafe article went on to summarize, quote--“The holiness in him and in his words is tangible.  It is a genuine turning of the other cheek.  He is not threatening to walk away; he is pledging his church to walk together with all the Primates of the Anglican Communion.”—unquote.  [Ibid.]


I pray that we may all have the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit to walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.  May we continue to reach out and to help and even to love those around the world who disagree with us so very strongly.

And may we never go backwards and inflict more hurt on those who still struggle for full acceptance—in matters of gender or race or sexuality or whatever other area we might identify.

May the Spirit of the Lord help us to hold fast, and to turn the other cheek, and to walk in love.  For that is Jesus’ command and desire for us.