An Overview of the Journey (1998 – 2012)
This overview will focus on the issue of homosexuality and more particularly the matter of same-sex partnerships of faithful commitment in our parish families. The reason for this special focus is because this has been the major issue which threatens our unity as a Communion. It is crucial for all concerned to engage together in an ongoing process of prayerful dialogue and listening, seeking to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
As is well known, the traditional teaching of the Anglican Church (as well as other churches) has been against such partnerships. However, in recent decades gay and lesbian Christians, with the support of respected theologians, and many clergy and laity have been sharing their conviction that the Holy Spirit is leading the Believing Community into a profound rethinking of this traditional thinking. This movement for change concerns issues of biblical interpretation, as well as fresh understandings and insights about God’s intention and purpose for the gift of our sexuality. The Communion remains deeply divided on the issues, with members on both ‘sides’ of the debate holding their differing convictions in good faith.
2) Lambeth Conference 1998
The Lambeth Conference of all the Anglican Bishops meets every 10 years, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The bishops decide on doctrinal issues (among a range of other matters). Although this body does not ‘make laws’ for the church, it does set policy. In 1998 the bishops decided by a large majority to affirm the traditional position on same-sex partnerships. This was in spite of the fact that in Provinces such as Canada and the USA, the practice of affirming such unions was already becoming common.
It must be pointed out that the Provinces are autonomous regions of the Communion; there is no central juridical body in the Anglican Church. Some of these Provinces continued, unofficially, to allow for the blessing of same-sex unions (sometimes by ‘turning a blind eye’). This was on the grounds of both provincial autonomy, and on the fact that decisions of Lambeth were advisory and not binding in a juridical sense. More deeply, it was on the grounds of their biblical and doctrinal understandings, affirmed through pastoral experience in the life of their Province.
3) The Election as Bishop of Gene Robinson in 2003 who is in a same-sex partnership
In 2003 the Diocese of New Hamshire (USA) elected Gene Robinson, who was in a same-sex partnership, as their next Bishop. This was done in full accordance with the canons and constitutions of the Episcopal Church of the United States. However his election became a major factor in further dividing the Communion.
4) The Windsor Report – 2004
The Archbishop of Canterbury set up a Commission to discuss and make recommendations as to how the Church should handle these serious divisions which were in danger of leading the church into schism. The Commission produced an impressive and painstaking 90 page Report. It recommended that the Anglican Communion consider a Covenant which each Province would be invited to endorse. A drafting group was appointed and began a painstaking process.<
5) The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) –Jerusalem, June 2008
A large group of bishops and their supporters became increasingly frustrated by what they regarded as the failure of the leadership under the Archbishop of Canterbury, to discipline those Provinces and Dioceses which failed to obey the Resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. They met in Jerusalem to consider ‘a way forward’ and produced the Jerusalem Declaration. In effect, they called for ‘repentance and return’, and decided to set up their own structures of authority, distancing themselves from the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a ‘step too far’ for many evangelical leaders who otherwise supported the traditional position, but did not believe it was a matter which warranted going into schism.
6) The Lambeth Conference 2008
Soon after the GAFCON meeting, the remaining two thirds of the bishops met at Lambeth, and were in fact joined by a number from Gafcon. This Lambeth Conference was deliberately structured to try and avoid combative engagement. Rather, the intention was to enable those of very different convictions and contexts to meet in small and larger groups over the three week period in order to share and pray and study the Bible together. The intention was that they should listen and learn from each others’ experience and perspectives. This proved to be a deeply creative and healing experience. The result was that the Conference emerged with a strong consensus, and that in spite of deep differences which remained, they wanted to stay united in one Communion – calling on the Holy Spirit to help them through these divisions over time.
An appeal was made for all ‘sides’ to ‘hold back’ as it were, and give space to each other. To hold back on: 1 Further formal and official blessings of same-sex partnerships 2 Electing another bishop in a same-sex relationship 3 ‘Cross-border’ violations – sending bishops and ‘missionaries’ to other Provinces in violation of the canons of the Provinces concerned.
7) The Primates meeting – February 2009
The term ‘Primates’ refers to the senior Archbishops of the Anglican Communion who head the 38 different Provinces around the world. In the context of the Gafcon meeting in 2008, which in effect had pointed to an impending split away by some Provinces, it was most significant that all the “Gafcon Primates” actually came to this meeting in February 2009, and participated fully. This was most encouraging. By all accounts there continues to be a desire to hold on in unity in spite of painful differences and strongly felt opposing convictions.
8) The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) – May 2009
This is another important international Anglican body – the only one with lay and clergy members, as well as bishops. It meets every 3 years. This body is dealing with the Covenant Process and has a Standing Committee which meets with the Primates.Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and the Rev Janet Trisk are members of the ACC.
9) The Anglican Covenant Process
The group responsible for the Covenant Process worked on a series of drafts. Some believed that the Covenant could be used as a means to exclude any Province that fails to endorse the traditional position. Others believe that this is indeed what should be done. Yet others are hoping that a formula could be found which will enable the Communion to hold together meaningfully and creatively in diversity.
The final draft is an altogether more irenic document. All Provinces are being invited to consider endorsing the Covenant. The Provincial Synod of ACSA, meeting last year, gave its support to the Covenant.Through this Covenant, Anglican Provinces are committing themselves to holding on to each other in unity across the divides, as the Communion wrestles with difficult and divisive issues, and as we all seek to live more closely in the heart and mind of Christ.
10) Holding together in spite of divisions – where now?
The Communion remains seriously divided. Those who have ordained bishops from an African Province to work in the United States Province continue their activity according to their convictions. And those Dioceses which already allow for the blessing of same-sex unions, will not turn back now on their convictions. Their ‘journey of faith experience and theological conviction’ has taken them to a point of no return.
11) A possible model for the process – The movement for the ordination of women – allowing for diversity
There was a time when the movement for the ordination of women represented a minority position, as is presently the case with the movement for the blessing of same-sex partnerships. Concerning women’s ordination, space was given to those who supported this significant change in the church’s tradition. There was no sense of disloyalty in promoting a viewpoint which went beyond the official teaching at the time.
The 1988 Lambeth Conference agreed allow for a ‘local option’, in other words that each Province should be left free to make their own local decision.ACSA agreed to such ordinations at its 1992 Provincial Synod. On the other hand the Province of Nigeria still forbids such ordinations. Moreover even within ACSA, while most Dioceses do ordain women, some as yet do not do so.Just as with the ordination of women, so now the Anglican Church is on a journey concerning the issue of gay and lesbian partnerships of faithful commitment in parish families.
12) The Anglican gift to the world wide Church – our degree of diversity
One of the gifts which the Anglican Communion has to offer the world-wide Church of Christ, is the very degree of diversity which we have learned to live with, and cherished for centuries. We are all fully familiar with our various traditions – Evangelical, Broad Church, Catholic, and Charismatic, affirmed in one family. Concerning the Scriptures, we also acknowledge various interpretive traditions. There are many who hold to a more literal way of understanding the text, while others believe that the meaning and message of Jesus Christ is better understood through a much less literal approach. The same can apply to what we understand by ‘fidelity to the Tradition’.Given the work of the living Spirit guiding the Church, no one would suggest that Tradition can never, or should never change.
The main stream of the Anglican approach to Scripture and Tradition has lead Lambeth Conferences, and most Provinces, for example, to accept and support the ordination of women. And again, concerning remarriage, many Provinces, for reasons of deep pastoral concern, have come to allow, in certain circumstances, for remarriage after divorce. These changes in teaching and practice represent hugely significant shifts in tradition and in the way Scripture was previously understood and interpreted.
13) The Anglican Church of Southern Africa
In 2002 the Provincial Synod passed a positive resolution which included the following: “This Synod: Gives thanks for the role played by gay and lesbian members….encourages the welcoming and affirmation of all members regardless of their sexual orientation..” Then the resolution quotes from the 1998 Lambeth Conference Report “all baptised believing and faithful members, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ. We call upon the Church and all its members to work to end any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and to oppose homophobia”.The position of ACSA is therefore very different to the other Provinces in Africa. Nevertheless for ACSA as well, the traditional teaching still applies. But this does not mean that there is no ‘movement’ at all.
14) The Synod of Bishops issue a Discussion Document concerning Guidelines for a more pastoral response to same-sex partnerships of faithful commitment in our parish families.
Three Diocesan Synods (Cape Town, False Bay, and Grahamstown) passed resolutions requesting the Bishops to provide Guidelines for a more pastoral response to same-sex partnerships of faithful commitment in our parish families. The Archbishop called together a small group to produce a ‘background document’ (theological and historical) to assist the Bishops in preparing these Guidelines. The Bishops, after a number of meetings, produced a Discussion Document on the Guidelines, and this document has now been sent to all Dioceses for sharing and response.
15) The SA context – the Constitution & the Civil Unions Act
The Constitution has ‘outlawed’ all forms of discrimination including that of sexual orientation. This led to the passing of the Civil Unions Act in 2006 which allows for same-sex marriages. We now have members in some congregations who are married in terms of this Act. They are calling for their church to support them in their commitment to be faithful, by blessing their partnerships in church. This poses a concrete pastoral challenge to the church. The State respects the religious freedom of churches and faith communities and is leaving it to each religious body to act according to its respective teachings. However the passing of such legislation does challenge the churches to undertake their own internal pastoral and theological reflection concerning their response to those in state recognised same-sex civil partnerships.
16) The Significance of Archbishop Thabo’s leadershiptogether with the Synod of Bishops
a) Human sexuality is not a matter for schism
In spite of a very wide range of theological opinion and conviction in the Synod of Bishops, they are agreed, as a Synod, that this is not a ‘communion breaking’ issue.It is not a matter for Schism. This is particularly significant, given that there are a number of groupings in ACSA who believe to the contrary that it is such a matter.In his relationship with Primates of Africa and East Asia Archbishop Thabo continues to be gracious and non-combative, but remains clear and firm on this crucial matter.ACSA refuses to reject any Province, but as indicated above, is committed to holding onto all ‘sides’, affirming theological and pastoral fundamentals.
b) The human rights of LGBTI persons are a gospel concern
In 2010 the Synod of Bishops issued significant statements in response to events in Uganda where their Parliament was discussing a Bill which included the death penalty for homosexual practice, and in Malawi where two men were sentenced to 14 years in prison because they shared in a public engagement ceremony. The world was shocked, and the Synod of Bishops was shocked!
They issued the following Statement on Uganda and Malawi:
“As Bishops we believe that it is immoral to permit or support oppression of, or discrimination against, people on the grounds of their sexual orientation, and contrary to the teaching of the gospel; particularly Jesus’ command that we should love one another as he has loved us, without distinction (John 13:34-35). We commit ourselves to teach, preach and act against any laws that undermine human dignity and oppress any and all minorities, even as we call for Christians and all people to uphold the standards of holiness of life.” The implications of this commitment need now to be applied to our teaching and practice as a church in our congregational families.
17) The dialogue continues around three crucial questions
“Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end” Hebrews 12.2
This leads to three crucial connected questions:
a) How would (and how does) Jesus respond pastorally to gay and lesbian persons? And what of our own response and attitudes?
b) How does God intend us to approach, understand and interpret the Scriptures in order to discern his heart and mind?
c) How does God intend us to express his gift of our sexuality in the discipline of love?
Paul’s word to all God’s people (Eph 4.1-6)
“I urge you then – I who am a prisoner because I serve the Lord: live a life that measures up to the standard God set when he called you. Be always humble, gentle, and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace which binds you together. There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God and Father of all humankind, who is Lord of all, and is in all”.