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Widening Circle Conference focus on full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the church

The Widening Circle is a group of progressive Anglicans, clergy and lay members, who promote the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the church, including ordination and same-sex marriage. The second gathering was held at Bishop Cronyn Church in London  April 14th to 17th. We heard from Dr. Jenny Plane Te Paa, a maori woman who heads up a theological college in New Zealand, about her reservations about the proposed Anglican Covenant. The covenant is meant to address the rift in the Anglican Communion ( all the national Anglican churches in the world including the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church in the U.S. ) over the issue of the place of gay and lesbian people in the Church.
Conservative elements in the U.S. church and in much of Africa, alarmed at the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy in North America and the consecration of openly gay and lesbian bishops, pressured Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to form a group to draft a covenant whereby historically autonomous national Anglican churches would have that autonomy limited by an international agreement and thereby the spread of the full inclusion of gays and lesbians could be stopped. This has never been part of classical Anglicanism which, when it split from Rome, never developed or desired a central authority, analogous to the Pope, to govern its member churches or decide doctrine for them. As the English church took its fate into its own hands so it wanted to grant the same independence to its daughter churches.
Classical Anglicanism has said that you can see what we believe in the way we worship. There has been no agreed on way of developing or defining beliefs (doctrine) world-wide. Doctrine has been left in the hands of the dioceses ( a subdivision of the church lead by a bishop – in our case the Bishop of the Diocese of Ontario, George Bruce, centred on Kingston ).  We do believe in mutual accountability between national churches and so we meet every 10 years in the Lambeth Conference in England to discuss matters of common concern. There is also the Anglican Consultative Council, made up of lay persons and clergy, and the Primates Meetings ( meetings of the head bishops of each national church ). None of these meetings can tell a national church what to do or believe.
The Covenant proposes we all sign on to an agreement that would allow for complaints to a Standing Committee about the actions of a member church. Any church could complain about any other church world-wide and seemingly on any issue. The Standing Committee would investigate and decide whether that particular national church had stepped outside the covenant and then decide on sanctions. The scope of the covenant, the vagueness as to the composition of the Standing Committee, and the unspecified nature of the sanctions troubles us as progressive members. We could find ourselves “second class” members of the international church, excluded from full membership in the Anglican Consultative Council and/or not invited to the Lambeth Conference.
The Covenant seems designed to rein in progressive churches. Churches in other cultural contexts find the idea of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian members unacceptable. Some, indeed, try to deny the existence of homosexuality in their own cultures, demonize gay persons, and in some instances cooperate with secular governments to make homosexuality a criminal offence. At its worst this has taken the form of legislation whereby people can be arrested for being gay; knowing gay people and not “turning them in”; gathering to discuss the issue; promoting gay rights; gathering socially, or engaging in intimate relations. This last sanction can lead to the death penalty.
There is an effort to impose other cultural beliefs on the North American church under the guise of a pretended “orthodoxy” ( right belief ). One of the reasons often cited is the difficulty a pro-gay stance in the West can produce for Christians in Africa facing a militant Islamism. While those difficulties are real it is unlikely that a change in this area would suddenly produce peace between the two parties, nor should the attitude of another religion set the theological agenda for Christians. Again, what is behind this movement has more to do with culture than the faith. In the past the Anglican Communion has recognized and accommodated cultural differences among its member churches, contrary to belief and practice elsewhere, for pastoral reasons, and this has not lead to a split in the Communion or the creation of second class churches or the imposition of a covenant. Examples would be the remarriage of divorced persons in the church and the ordination of women.
Dr. Jenny Plane Te Paa  drew parallels between arguments used against her full inclusion in the New Zealand Church as a minority Maori and a woman, and arguments used against the inclusion of same-sex oriented persons in the Church. She wondered who was pushing this agenda, who had declared it a crisis, who had set a deadline for signing-on, who had decided it was “communion-breaking”. She also asked who had been consulted about the proposed covenant. Were women consulted, were people of colour consulted, were youth consulted, were people of different cultures consulted? She noted the different kinds of internal governance in member churches and given those differences, the impossibility of setting so short and arbitrary a deadline (2011) to sign on or at least begin the process of signing on. The conclusions we were left to draw were that this was an agenda being pushed by a particular interest group in a hurry. It would seem that groups within the church who had “lost” in their opposition to re-marriage after divorce and the ordination of women on the national level, were seeking to create an international instrument that could stop same-sex marriages/ordinations and perhaps reverse some of those earlier decisions.
The debate is often framed in terms of biblical faithfulness, but the texts and arguments from scripture don’t hold up to scholarly scrutiny.  It begins to look as if a cultural conservatism within some parts of The Episcopal Church ( U.S.), The Church of England, and parts of Africa are seeking to gain control of  the doctrinal and pastoral lives of the English and North American churches. The Widening Circle, while not opposed to an international statement of shared beliefs among Anglican churches, is opposed to the Covenant as an instrument for the creation of doctrine and the abridgement of the autonomy of the national churches.  If we are to have such an instrument then we need to take many steps back and begin to ask ourselves how doctrine has in fact been made in the Anglican Church in the past. This is by no means clear nor has this discussion ever taken place. Should we have such a discussion? Yes, perhaps, but it will be of necessity a long one and one that should not be truncated by artificial deadlines.
The conference also looked at ways of accommodating the Pastoral Letter of the House of Bishops in Canada detailing what can and cannot take place at the blessing of civil same-sex unions. Some new forms of service were looked at and the ethical dilemma of having to treat heterosexual and homosexual couples differently was discussed with a view to standardizing practice.
The Widening Circle will be producing a statement on the proposed Anglican Covenant and circulating it to members of General Synod (our national governing body) before it meets this year. A copy of our statement will be sent to the Canadian House of  Bishops.  A copy of Dr. Jenny Plane Te Paa’s address will be posted on the Widening Circle web-site  and we will continue to agitate for the rights of gay and lesbian members to full inclusion in the church.
We will also speak out to reclaim words like “orthodoxy” and “biblical” for progressive Christians who have been accused of being lax on doctrine and weak on the bible. On the contrary we feel we stand in the best traditions of our church when it comes to Christ’s radically inclusive orthodoxy and that far from being weak on scripture, we have subjected it to the most thorough and searching examination in search of the truth that the Bible promises us the Holy Spirit will lead us in to.

The Rev. Richard Pitcher
St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Filed Under: Letters and Opinion


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