Sunday, January 17, 2016

Triumph and Failure at Canterbury

I'm coming late to the discussion of the actions of the Primate's Meeting in Canterbury last week.  I was in Texas for 5 days with limited computer access.

At first glance, the Primates' Meeting was a triumph for Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Almost everyone assumed that at least six archbishops would walk out of the meeting at some point -- that was assumed to be a given.  And yet, only the Archbishop of Uganda left during the Meeting.  The point of conflict was the Episcopal Church's decision to offer the full sacramental rite of marriage to same sex couples.  For the central African bishops, and a few others, this was the depth of Western decadence and the height of American imperial arrogance, a gesture of contempt for them and for their flocks.  These bishops demanded since the 2003 consecration of the openly gay and partnered Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire that the Episcopal Church be sanctioned and even expelled from the Anglican Communion for its acceptance of homosexuals and homosexuality.  That did not happen -- could not happen -- at this Meeting.  On the other hand, neither did they walk out.  Except for Uganda, the central African Primates remained for the conclusion.

In the course of the Primates' Meeting, the Archbishop of Canterbury made an official apology to all LGBTIs for their continuing suffering at the hands of Christian churches and by the Anglican Churches in particular.  That apology should have been historic; at last a formal public recognition by a leading hierarch of a major church within a large fellowship of churches of its responsibility for the oppression of gay people around the world.
The decisions of the Primate's Meeting earlier in the week hollowed out that apology and robbed it of any historic significance or credibility.

The degree of punishment or not of the Episcopal Church by the assembled Primates is ultimately irrelevant.  What matters is that the Episcopal Church was publicly and officially censured for its initiative in fully accepting sexual minorities into their church.  Worse still was the message that this action sent to LGBTIs, Christian and not, around the world; "You are not a person.  You are a problem."  Despite the rhetorical fig leaf of couching the language of the censure in condemnations of homophobia, homophobes will take the statement as license to continue to marginalize and persecute sexual minorities in their own churches.  The Primates will do nothing more than wring their hands impotently as people are penalized, attacked, and murdered for being themselves.

The person who emerged out of the Primates' Meeting as the real star of the show was not Archbishop Welby, but the Episcopal Church's newly minted Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry.  Not everyone was happy with his performance.  Some gay activists thought his response was weak tea.  He used the words "gay" and "lesbian" a little too sparingly for their taste.  And yet, nowhere did Michael Curry apologize or back away from the Episcopal Church's full inclusion of sexual minorities in its life.  If anything he doubled-down, asserted that mission of the Episcopal Church even more forcefully.  His statement to the Episcopal News Service shortly after the vote to censure was taken is worth quoting at length:

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.
 “For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” ...
“For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”
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 committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.”

Bishop Curry's statement is a brilliant mix of grace and courage, all the more remarkable for being largely unscripted and apparently spontaneous.  No, the Episcopal Church will not abandon its LGBTI faithful, even if it means sharing in the scorn and exile that they suffer.  Yes, the Episcopal Church remains Anglican always willing to walk with its Anglican fellows no matter what they think of its decisions.  Bishop Curry understands the very hard lot of central African Anglicans and Christians in general.  They live in impoverished exploited countries riven with tribal and sectarian hatreds.  A peaceable gathering in a secure place, or even in a building, is beyond the reach of some congregations.  Corruption, lawlessness, fear, violence, and privation are the daily bread of many African Christians.
The Bishop also understands the lot of LGBTIs; isolation, fear, violence, loneliness, hatred, and shaming remain the daily bread of too many.  A lot of sexual minorities still find it too dangerous simply to be themselves.  Getting through a single day in peace and safety is unimaginable for many.  A few have walked a Via Dolorosa of pain and suffering all the way to the fatal end.

What should have been a historic political triumph for Archbishop Welby ended up becoming a moral failure illumined by the grace and courage of the Presiding Bishop of the church suffering censure.  Welby succeeded in holding the Communion together for just a little while longer, and even inching it a tiny bit in the direction of greater acceptance and charity; and yet, at the price of further alienating an already deeply alienated population in the Church.  LGBTIs and their friends and families are left to wonder if the survival of the Communion was worth it.  Some are already concluding that no, it wasn't.


I've long argued that Christianity fits poorly into its assigned role of spiritual underwriter of all things normative.  A religion mostly founded by social misfits and outcasts who were largely celibate can't be expected to do a very fine job of maintaining the ancient Roman cult of hearth and ancestors that modern societies demand.  What to do with a figure like Peter when doing the Christian version of propitiating the household Lares and the family ancestors?  He left behind a wife and children to follow Jesus.  Scripture and history are silent on what happened to them, even about who they were.

The Gospel reading for this past Sunday was the story of the Wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John.  Traditionalists usually interpret this story as the ultimate normative Gospel narrative.  Jesus blessed the unchanging institution of marriage between one man and one woman with His presence.
A closer look at the story reveals something much more remarkable.  The bride and groom at the wedding remain unnamed.  Jesus is there not to preside at the wedding or to bless the couple, but simply as a guest, and not a guest of honor.  Jesus says nothing here about the sanctity of marriage and what it means.  He makes no pronouncements.  His first public miracle is not to walk on water or raise the dead, but to save a poorly planned wedding banquet from going south.  He turns water into wine when the house runs out.  He didn't just make cheap screw-top chablis, he made exceptionally rare and fine wine, the best of the whole evening.  He didn't just make a little or even enough, He made about 180 gallons of it, more than any wedding party (or a dozen wedding parties) could possibly drink.  The story becomes a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and about the abundance and even the wastefulness of the Divine economy.  With God, there will always be way more than enough for everybody.

Giotto's version of the Wedding at Cana.  Christ sits off to the left next to the young groom.  The bride sits in the center of the picture that convention of the day usually assigned to Christ.  This is her wedding and her party after all.  Even God must yield to her the place of honor.  Christ instructs the servants while looking across the room into the eyes of the portly gourmand who is the house steward.  The steward returns Christ's gaze with a look of widening surprise as it dawns on him that what he expected to be tap water turns out to be the best wine he's ever tasted -- and he has truckloads of it.

Veronese's giant painting of the Wedding at Cana in the Louvre is an immense over-the-top spectacle; the wedding of a rich Venetian prince to a very rich Venetian princess where no expense was spared.  Too much is not enough in this painting.  There is a hoard of guests, invited guests and guests from off the street.   There are 130 guests total in this painting along with assorted dogs, cats, and birds.  The epicure steward on the lower right dressed in embroidered silk pronounces his satisfaction with the new wine while a concert of musicians performs in the center.  According to legend, Veronese himself (dressed in white and yellow)  plays the viola while a bearded elderly Titian (dressed in red) plays a large standing base.  The young Bassano (dressed in blue and rose) plays the violin.  The poet Aretino supposedly plays the role of master of ceremonies on the lower left, dressed in green silk.  He and everyone else anxiously await the bride's verdict on the miraculous wine.  Veronese's painting is about as theologically deep as a paper cup, but it is as lavish as lavish can get, magnificently painted with brilliant rich colors in amazing variety beautifully harmonized.  It is an unapologetically joyous painting in every respect.

Despite the efforts of many to make homophobia a central doctrine of the Christian faith up there with the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Trinity, LGBTI Christians know that Jesus was despised and rejected just like they are, that He made a special point of dwelling among the despised and rejected of his day; with the unclean, the outcast, the marginal, and the poor.  As Diarmaid McCulloch once pointed out, the Gospels are unique in the literature of the ancient world in that the rich and powerful are relegated to the outer margins of the narrative.  Those at the center of the Gospel narratives are among the common folk and the social bottom that most ancient authors would have considered beneath notice.
LGBTI Christians and African Christians both know in their hearts that there are places for them at the Wedding at Cana, and that there is more of the best wine than they could possibly drink waiting for them.  May they someday find their way to each other and discover joy in each other's company.


--I couldn't be happier or prouder to be Episcopalian these days.  The Episcopal church, more than any other, not only welcomes me as a full member, but in doing so, willingly shares in the scorn and exile that I and those like me always face.  That to me is real love and fellowship, truly Christlike.  I should point out that the African churches at their best do the same for their members.  I couldn't be happier with the new Presiding Bishop who faced a real trial by fire so soon into his term, and so soon after recovering from serious illness, and came through it with such bravery and grace.
I much prefer the community of the Episcopal Church for all of its problems -- its declining membership and revenues, the almost universal scorn it suffers for either being too bold or not bold enough, for being so very middle class with a huge upper class inheritance that it can no longer afford to maintain, for still being so white despite a growing non-white membership (the largest congregations in the Episcopal Church are now in Haiti).  I much prefer those problems over the  worse dysfunctions of the Church of England with its institutionalized hypocrisy over sexuality issues.  Or over the much worse and darker dysfunctions of the Roman Catholic Church.  I'll definitely take the Episcopal Church over that champion of Russian nationalism, that cheerleader for the Putin regime, and haven for antisemites, the Russian Orthodox Church.  I'll take it over those bastions of American nationalism, cheerleaders for the GOP, and havens for racists for whom Biblical literalism and penal substitution atonement are the gospel, American fundamentalist churches.  The dysfunctions in those very autocratic churches can be as bad and as dark as anything in the Catholic Church.  I'll certainly take the Episcopal Church over a very shallow and facile secularism that can be every bit as narrow and bigoted as its fundamentalist antagonists.  I'll definitely take that church over the actuarial nihilism of market capitalism that rejects the very idea of any intrinsic meaning or value, that would be happy with either slavery or freedom if only they increased profits for the owners.

--I can't think of any tactic more cynical than to pit two groups of oppressed people against each other in a game of competitive suffering.  That's true for religion and politics.


The Diocesan Bishop of New York City, Andrew Dietsche issued this splendid statement on January 15th.  Here is part of that statement:

I particularly want to speak to those of our diocese in the LGBT community. Please do not fear that the divisions in our communion expressed yesterday, or the consequences of those divisions for the Episcopal Church, will ever cause for this bishop or diocese a scrap of regret for the decisions made here to provide for all people, particularly for gay and lesbian people, the fullest possible inclusion in our common life and full access to the sacramental life of the church, notably the sacraments of marriage and ordination. We have seen God bless the whole church as the church has sought to bless those who had long been marginalized. We give thanks for the good learnings and gifts which have come to us as we have striven to love more expansively, to love as Christ loves. We will continue firm in our convictions and in our continuing embrace of the full and diverse community of brothers and sisters which is our life in New York, even as we continue to reach out to our sister provinces across the communion in continued fellowship. "I came among you," Jesus said, "that all may be one."


In a very angry article in The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt calls out the hypocrisy of the Anglican hierarchs for sanctioning the Episcopal Church for marrying gays while deliberately overlooking the African churches who murder them.

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