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♦ January 16, 2016 ♦

During Martin Luther King week I will be in Columbus teaching an intensive course in Anglican Ethos and Spirituality. I always look forward to teaching this course. Our readings are rich, running the gamut from Cranmer and Hooker to Hannah More and Jeremy Taylor, from William Stringfellow to Lakshman Wickremasinghe to Stephanie Spellers. If this course goes as it has before, the conversations will be provocative and ecumenical (especially with the several Lutherans enrolled), the worship varied and globally inflected, the attention to art and music both challenging and rewarding.

Primates2016 Evensong

Primates gather for Evensong at Primates2016. [Primates2016 image]

But given the news from the Primates’ meeting in Canterbury yesterday, a course with the phrase “Anglican ethos” in its title may seem distressingly ironic. The assembled primates of the Anglican Communion, convened for conversations in Canterbury by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, voted by a two-thirds majority to suspend the Episcopal Church for three years from any voting privileges on both ecumenical and intrachurch bodies. This was, of course, a reaction to the General Convention’s vote last summer to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions.

In the past 24 hours, several of my seminary colleagues have already issued thoughtful and cogent reflections on these developments, correcting the early press accounts that seemed to imply that the Episcopal Church had been placed under some kind of medieval interdict. The primates do not have that kind of power, and neither does the Archbishop of Canterbury. I especially urge you to hear Presiding Bishop Curry′s eirenic response to what must have been a painful experience for him, and Dean Andrew McGowan′s brilliant analysis of what these measures mean for us as Episcopalians, and what they do not.

Once again, the primates have assumed a kind of papal authority well beyond anything ever granted them by our loosely ordered member provinces. Perhaps the suspension of voting rights was a diplomatic compromise aimed at avoiding the outright expulsion of the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion (the Anglican version of excommunication, I suppose). But in effect, the Primates′ vote once again denied to more representative bodies of the church—whether the Anglican Consultative Council or our own General Convention—their equal right to weigh in on a matter which in many sectors of the African church is a matter of life and death for LGBT people and those parents, friends and clergy who love them.

For me personally, the Primates’ action comes as no surprise, as it is consistent with the narrow Biblical hermeneutic and ill-suppressed homophobia that has haunted these gatherings since at least Lambeth 1988, and even long before. My early ministry was in Pittsburgh, where I witnessed the unfolding of this sad story at first hand, at a time when a well-financed dissident wing of the Diocese hijacked words like “Anglican” and “orthodox” for their own schismatic purposes. They eventually hijacked the entire diocese, to the lasting pain of many faithful people. It is doubly painful that the leader of the resulting breakaway polity, first formed in Pittsburgh—the Anglican Church in North America—was for the first time offered seat and voice at this Primates’ gathering.

For better or worse, it must now be admitted that such narrow Biblicism and punitive theology are as much a hallmark of our contemporary Anglican ethos as any perspectives more generous and benign that you might find reflected in my course syllabus. I will be sure to include some conversation about this—the shadow side of Anglican ethos—in my course next week. How can I not?

But I will take comfort—and trust my students will as well—in the fact that the cramped reading of doctrine, one that reduces faithful people to racial, gender or sexual stereotypes, comprises only a short chapter in the ongoing story of the Anglican ethos—an ethos marked more by Jesus’s full embrace of human dignity than by the petty exclusions of small-minded, frightened churchmen.