Anglican leaders meet amidst talk of split over sexuality

By Savi Hensman
January 11, 2016

A split in the Anglican Communion would be a failure though not a disaster, said the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning (11 January)

"It would not be good if the Church is unable to set an example to the world of showing how we can love one another and disagree profoundly, because we are brought together by Jesus Christ, not by our own choice", he said.

He is hosting a meeting of the primates (most senior clergy) of member churches from across the world. The Church of England has a key role in linking these though each church has the authority to make its own decisions.

The gathering may discuss such issues as religiously-motivated violence and protection of the environment. But a showdown is expected over human sexuality, with some leaders reportedly prepared to walk out if they  cannot enforce their own view on churches in other parts of the world.

After decades of study of the Bible, discussion and prayers, some provinces have become more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) parishioners. In some instances they are ready to marry couples.

Other leaders have refused even to consider the possibility that same-sex partnerships may help people to become more aware of, and respond to, God’s love. In certain instances they have encouraged governments to further criminalise LGBT people and those who seek their human rights.

This is connected with a deeper bid for power. These archbishops tend to believe that Scripture is clear on such matters and so failure to obey them involves disobedience to God. They have been largely, though not entirely, successful in silencing dissent in their own countries. They have also sometimes set up rival churches in places they think are too morally lax, such as Brazil and the USA. Many provinces are somewhere in between.

"Certainly I want reconciliation, but reconciliation doesn't always mean agreement – in fact, it very seldom does. It means finding ways to disagree well and that's what we've got to do this week”, Welby said.

But, if some participants do walk out, he is prepared. “The Church is a family and you remain a family even if you go your separate ways."

In England itself, a widely-publicised letter has been sent to him and the Archbishop of York from over a hundred prominent Anglicans, including cathedral deans and retired (plus one serving) bishops. This has called on them to acknowledge “that we, the Church, have failed in our duty of care to LGBTI members of the Body of Christ around the world” and need to repent. Thousands of people have added their signatures. Various activists (myself included) have been involved in this initiative, led by Jayne Ozanne, a General Synod member and director of Accepting Evangelicals.

In much of the world and among numerous theologians, opinion has shifted on sexuality. Not only Anglican but also other churches are widely perceived as unloving, unjust and unbiblical when they treat LGBT people unequally.

Elsewhere, church leaders seeking to stay on the good side of repressive governments, and compete with other expressions of faith based on claims to absolute certainty, are reluctant to give ground. In some countries there is some openness to change but discussion is still at a comparatively early stage and most Christians tend to regard same-sex partnerships as wrong.

Willingness to disagree while staying in fellowship – as happens on so many important issues anyway – would be desirable. But if some leaders demand that their own views on what the Bible teaches should be forced on Anglicans worldwide, with no room for argument, this is too high a price for an appearance of unity.

Even if there is a split, the influence of Anglican ways of worship and tradition, and links among families and church communities internationally, will remain.

*Ekklesia launches 'Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness: Same Sex Love and the Church' by Savi Hensman

© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator on politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.