With a tiny sigh, I foresee that the coming hours and days will be filled with headlines about the Anglican Communion being “fractured” and the Scottish Episcopal Church being “punished”.
Indeed, first thing this morning, my phone pinged with an email alert:
“Scottish Anglicans face harsh punishment for gay weddings.”
All deeply wrong.
Let’s start by putting things in their proper historical context. The Scottish Episcopal Church can trace its roots back to the arrival of Columba on Iona in the sixth century AD. We have existed in our modern form since 1689. We have been forged over the past four centuries by scarier things than Primates’ Meetings, for goodness’ sake; just Google “Jacobites”.
That headline came before anyone in the Primates’ Meeting had even said anything. And has been proven to be untrue once they did. You’ll forgive me if I didn’t start quaking in my shoes.
So, let’s try to unpack a little what has actually been happening in Canterbury this week.
There is a meeting of the Anglican Primates, which began yesterday and which will run until Thursday. It is a meeting that happens occasionally, and is an opportunity for the leaders of all of the Anglican provinces around the world to talk and listen to each other. The agenda this year is broad-ranging, including issues of evangelism, social inequality, and climate change. There has also been a conversation about the Scottish Episcopal Church, around the decision made at our General Synod earlier this year to change our Canon Law to allow for marriage equality within our Province. That happened today. This conversation has not come as a surprise to us — a similar one took place at a Primates’ Meeting shortly after a similar decision was made by the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, with the result that various “sanctions” were applied to ECUSA. That happened in 2016 and our brethren in America remain very much part of the Communion — the service of Evensong held at the Primates’ Meeting yesterday was led by their Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. It has never been in question that the Scottish Episcopal Church would remain part of the Anglican Communion, no matter what was said or done in Lambeth this week.The outcome of the Primates’ conversations around the Scottish Episcopal Church has been the application of very minimal sanctions. We are excluded from doctrinal debates, and we may not chair committees within the Communion. These are broadly similar sanctions as those that were applied to ECUSA in January 2016.
They are what we expected. No more. No worse.
We are given to understand from things that have been said to the conservative Christian press that demands were made by some primates for Scotland to be given more punitive sanctions. Justin Welby should be praised for holding a firm line against those demands, but at the same time it’s difficult to see that there was any other pragmatic option.
We take the Primates’ Meeting seriously — as seriously as it needs to be taken, which is somewhat less seriously and with a little more context than the press do.
For one thing, it would have been ludicrous to suggest that the Scottish Episcopal Church embarked on the process of introducing marriage equality in the Church with anything less than a full and keen knowledge of the consequences that we might bring down upon our own head. The story of the long campaign to make same-sex marriage possible in the Church is well documented within these pages and elsewhere. Those of us who have been at the sharp end of that campaign have never hung back from talking about what this might mean within the Anglican Communion, and at the same time we have been perfectly clear about what it cannot mean. For it would also be ludicrous to suggest that the Scottish Episcopal Church has not been fully aware of the considerable limitations of the Primates.
The Anglican Communion is not an autocracy lashed together by rules and regulations, with cross-provincial laws to be followed and punishments to be handed out to transgressors . The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, held together by bonds of affection and a shared history and an understanding that even the best of friends do not always agree with one another.
On this occasion, we in Scotland have come to a decision — a decision that was taken after conversation, after consultation, after much thought and prayer.
That decision has been one that not everyone in the Anglican Communion has agreed with. It has been one that not everyone in the Scottish Episcopal Church has agreed with. And we knew going in that that would be the case, which was why we worked so hard to ensure that respect for religious freedom and religious conscience were enshrined within our laws.
If only the same respect for religious freedom and religious conscience existed everywhere.
I am disappointed in the Primates’ Meeting, but I am not surprised. I am disappointed and saddened that a Province that has taken a decisive step forward in equality and justice for all God’s people is deemed deserving of sanctions and a place on the naughty step, while Provinces are allowed to go unsanctioned and unchecked when their leadership supports and defends the state-sanctioned murder of LGBTQ+ people in their countries. And though I praise him for his doubtless moderating influence today, I still believe that Justin Welby could learn a thing or two from Scotland about speaking truth to power and being prepared to live with the consequences.
Mark Strange, the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, said to the Primates’ Meeting today: “We will continue to play our part in the Anglican Communion we helped establish and I will do all I can to re-build relationships, but that will be done from the position our Church has now reached in accordance with its synodical processes and in the belief that Love means Love.” His full statement is available on the SEC website.
We are very proud of Bishop Mark here. Do not think for a minute that any decisions taken in Lambeth today make the Scottish Episcopal Church any less the Anglican Communion.
And nor should we make the mistake that the Archbishop of Canterbury did this week in GQ magazine of believing that the differences between Western Anglicans and Anglicans in the global South are a black and white issue.
In my speech to General Synod in June, I reminded Scottish Episcopalians that there are people beyond our borders who have cheered us on, who have prayed for us to shine a light into the places on Earth where our LGBTQ+ brethren and their allies live and too often die under the darkness of systems that oppress and persecute. I told them that we do a disservice to our sisters and brothers around the Communion when we presume that they are of one mind any more than we are of one mind, and that we do them a disservice when we believed that if we kept our mouths shut we would be keeping them safe. I called on them to do better, and do better they did.
In the next few days as I read the stories that a scandal-hungry media will produce about the gloomy portents and doomsday scenarios for the Anglican Communion, stories that will no doubt be fed into by some clergy who ought to know better, I’ll think of the Anglican Communion that I know and that it’s convenient for them to be blind to. I’ll think of the baptisms that took place in my cathedral this weekend, Scottish babies and African babies together. I’ll think of the marriages that have taken place before our altar and in the sight of God. I’ll remember the great group of the Nigerian community, many of them first generation immigrants, who have become part of our community, and who gathered together joyfully on Sunday with their families on that same altar for a blessing from their gay, fabulous, Scottish priest.
We are the Communion. We are the people of God and the living, loving, world-changing body of Christ. As we have been called in our task to the Church here we will still be, tomorrow and tomorrow and unto the ages of ages.