On Monday morning five Primates made presentations to the meeting at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the effect on mission that the Communion’s dispute on human sexuality is having. My report on the press conference follows, but I was struck by the first of the presentations highlighted by Phillip Aspinall, from a Province in which the bishops had met and discussed human sexuality. He said they had not allowed discussion to take place at any level below them in the church because the bishops were worried about what could happen if discussion percolated down into the public realm.
The bishops might have made a wise decision, based on knowledge of their own Province. Alternatively, their decision might have been patronising in the extreme, either not trusting their people to be able to engage with issues of sexuality and think about them wisely. The fear, of course, is that people’s faith and practice might be changed, and in the minds of the bishops, undermined, by such open discussion. We weren’t told which Province this was, but we might guess.
Changing Attitude’s research among lesbian and gay people in general, and Anglicans in particular, shows that they are as capable as LGBT people anywhere in the world of understanding themselves and the relationship between faith and sexuality. They are wise people and they behave with wisdom. They reveal a maturity and level of trust lacking in the bishops of whichever country Philip Aspinall reported.
We in the west are only too well aware of the dangers of authority figures thinking they know what is best for us and controlling information to maintain power and authority. There is evidence that autocratic models are even more in evidence in parts of the Global South. The Archbishop of Canterbury is specifically advocating a model of flexibility and sensitivity.
Lesbian and gay Anglicans in Nigeria, to give just one example from Africa, long to be able to open themselves to the church - their priests and bishops - and tell their own stories. For as long as bishops in any Province patronise their lay people and clergy by withholding information they keep them in ignorance. Almost certainly their people have a mind of their own, and the bishops fear the independence of thought that might go with it. By denying access to any process of listening they collude in maintaining oppression against LGBT people.
The bishops might be right, of course. By making information about sexuality public, they might undermine people’s faith and Christian practice. I would prefer they trusted God and their people and allowed information to be shared freely.
Press Conference report
At the press conference, Phillip Aspinall reported the following:
The five Primates making a presentation were the Most Revd Stephen Than Myint Oo (Myanmar), the Most Revd Thabo Cecil Makgoba (Southern Africa), the Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori (The Episcopal Church), the Most Revd Frederick J Hiltz (Canada) and the Most Revd Henry Luke Orombi (Uganda) gave presentations on the impact the sexuality debate in the Anglican Communion has had on the mission of their provinces.
Archbishop Phillip said that the presentations were very different, affected by very different influences and mission priorities. The way that the mission situation is affecting the life of the church means there is huge variety of responses to the effect of the debate on human sexuality. Archbishop Aspinal outlined two contrasting presentations.
In one, the bishops of the Province had met and discussed human sexuality but because in their culture, views about marriage and sexuality are very traditional, the bishops were worried about what would happen if the discussion percolated down into the public realm.
In another, human sexuality was a real and very live issue in society in general but the church is not driving the issue - it is there already and there is a huge diversity of opinion.
In all the presentations there was a clear commitment to mission. Human sexuality is not a challenge solely to Anglicans but to other denominations as well and the society in general. The extent to which scripture is interpreted is affected by local circumstances and by the spectacles we wear.
Archbishop Thabo Makoba reflected on the divisive debate that had taken place in the Southern African church around the ethics of armed struggle to overthrow apartheid, and yet the church had stayed together through it.