This week, the world’s largest Protestant denomination, the Anglican Communion, placed an unprecedented sanction on its American branch for its stance on same-sex marriage.
The United States Episcopal Church, an official member church of the 85 million-strong Communion, will be suspended from full participation in the Communion for the next three years for their June decision to permit their clergy to perform religious wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. This suspension precludes the Episcopal Church’s representation of the Communion in interfaith bodies or in Communion-wide decision-making.
The sanction follows a decades-long series of clashes between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion over issues related to LGBT acceptance and inclusion. In 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church made an official statement that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” In 2003, the Church ordained Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop.
Many regard the sanction as an effort to avoid a larger schism in the Communion. While the United States Episcopal Church is experiencing a decline in members—it has lost more than 20 percent of its adherents since Robinson’s consecration in 2003—Anglicanism is booming in more conservative nations. BBC reports that Anglican membership across Africa has increased by 640 percent since 1970, with Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya representing three of the top five most Anglican countries in the world.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, regarded as “first among equals” of the archbishops and de facto leader of the Anglican Communion, acknowledged the wide range of perspectives that would be presented at the special gathering of archbishops that voted in favor of sanctioning the Episcopal Church.
“The difference between our societies and cultures, as well as the speed of cultural change in much of the global north, tempts us to divide as Christians,” Welby said. “The tradition of the church and our theological understanding urges unity. A 21st-century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism.”
The decision has, indeed, spurred criticism from all sides. Foley Beach, Archbishop of the group of conservative American churches that have formally separated from the Episcopal Church, lamented to The Washington Post that “the sanctions placed on the Episcopal Church are strong, but they are not strong enough.”
Meanwhile, the African LGBT organization Out and Proud Diamond Group have been rallying to decry the pressure African archbishops have put on the Communion to take formal action against the Episcopal Church. Edwin Sesange, director of the organization, said,
“The Anglican Church has a responsibility to oppose the badge of stigma, shame and harm attached to homosexuality in many countries. It is their responsibility to bring an end to the inhuman treatment of LGBTI people.”
While representatives of the United States Episcopal Church have not indicated plans to fight the sanction, many have conveyed confusion over whether the decision is backed up by the necessary authority to curtail their participation in the Communion. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion does not have a pope or any other clearly defined leader of the faith. Following the news of the sanction, Episcopal reverend Mike Angell said in a blog post, “The primates do not have now, and have never held the authority to suspend, discipline, or expel a member church.”
Regardless of what the sanction will mean for the Episcopal Church in the years to come, leaders in the Church remain committed to their LGBT-inclusive policies. Jim Naughton, a communications consultant for the Episcopal Church, told ThinkProgress,
“If there are consequences for doing the right thing, then we are happy to face those sorts of consequences. They are minor compared to the consequences endured by LGBT Christians who suffer just for being who they are.”
Archbishop Welby, although firm in the Communion’s resolution to suspend the Episcopal Church, mentioned in a press conference following the decision’s release that it was “a constant source of deep sadness that people are persecuted for their sexuality.”
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Heaven Bound. Photo by Alisdare Hickson, Flickr Creative Commons.