Split Over Gay Marriage Fails to Divide Global Anglican Church

There has been a shakeup in the global Anglican Communion. On January 15, the senior bishops of the 38 Anglican Provinces across the world—known as Primates of the Anglican Church—voted to suspend the United States-based Episcopal Church for its change in the doctrine of marriage. The Episcopal Church has remained obstinate, saying it will continue to support gay marriage.

The Primates and the official head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, presented the suspension as a victory for unity. The Anglican Church did not sever ties with the Episcopal Church (TEC), but merely reprimanded them and attempted to limit their actions for the next three years.

Marriage Differences Threaten Church Unity

In July 2015, Episcopal bishops authorized their clergy to perform so-called same-sex marriages. The bishops granted clergy the right to refuse to perform a same-sex marriage with no penalty, however, and individual bishops reserved the right to refuse to allow the services in the churches they oversee.

Shortly thereafter, Archbishop Welby released a statement expressing “deep concern” over the votes. Welby urged the bishops to pull back, warning that “the decision will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships.” That warning turned out to be accurate.

In a weeklong meeting between January 11 and January 15, the Primates of the Anglican Communion decided to restrict the Episcopal Church. The official document reprimanded TEC, saying that the change in the doctrine of marriage “has caused further deep pain throughout our Communion.” Indeed, the Primates said this threatened the unity of the Anglican Communion, but they ultimately decided not to split.

The Primates agreed that “the traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, holds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union.” As such, they could not agree with TEC and decided that if TEC was to stay in the Anglican Communion, there must be a price to pay for their disagreement on this issue.

In his statement, Welby insisted that “it really was possible that we would reach a decision to walk apart—in effect, to split the Anglican Communion.” The leaders decided not to split the church, but to discipline the Episcopal Church for a period of three years.

It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

The Primates also asked Welby to appoint a “Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship.”

Backlash

It will come as no surprise that this decision inspired backlash from the supporters of gay marriage and the Episcopal Church. Michael Curry, the Episcopal Church’s newly elected first African American presiding bishop responded by saying this decision “conjures up” memories of slavery.

I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

Another response—no less heated, but more grounded in logical argument—claimed that the Primates lacked the authority to suspend the Episcopal Church. New Zealand Anglican Priest Bosco Peters argues that the Primates were not “unanimous,” partially because the Primate of Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, left the meeting when his resolution to exclude the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada “until they repented” was ignored.

After quoting the Anglican Primates’ statement defining marriage, Peters angrily added “Don’t mention polygamy, divorce-and-remarriage for heterosexuals, sequential polygamy—this was never about tradition, scripture, or marriage—let’s be plainly honest, it was about LGBT people.”

Despite Peters’ vitriol, he might have been right about authority. His criticisms seem born out in the difference between the authoritative tone of the Primates’ original message (released January 15) and Archbishop Welby’s later statement about the events (released Thursday, January 21).

In the original Primates message, the bishops say (emphasis is from Peters’ quotes), “we formally acknowledge … by REQUIRING that … SHOULD not be appointed … they WILL not…” In Welby’s statement, however, he notes that “we ASKED that TEC … we also ASKED that…”