At the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church one seldom gets that many surprises. Very occasionally you get a vote that is closer than you expect but most of the things you hear are what you expect to hear. However, today I have to confess that I heard things that were genuinely surprising.
As is fairly well known, the Scottish Episcopal Church is currently considering amending its marriage canon in order to be able to keep the church together – specifically to enable the church to contain within it both those who wish to be able to marry same-sex couples and those who don’t wish to do so. There’s a chance that this might happen.
What we heard today is that the question has been asked of the Archbishop of Canterbury as to what, if any, the consequences of making this change might be. It would appear that the only consequence is very personal to the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
He met Justin Welby two weeks ago and was told directly by him that if the Scottish Episcopal Church goes ahead and makes this change then the Primus will himself be personally removed by the Archbishop from leading the World Anglican-Reformed Dialogue – an ecumenical series of international meetings.
It seems to me that we have come to a new place if the Archbishop of Canterbury is going to personally threaten the Primus of a province of the Anglican Communion if that province makes a decision.
There were a number of people at this afternoon’s synod meeting proudly wearing badges that said: “The Archbishop of Canterbury hath no jurisdiction in this realm of Scotland”. However, it seems to me that this Archbishop thinks that he has. (Not for the first time, I would note).
I asked a question about this today as I had heard the Archbishop himself say in public to the world’s press that he did not know whether there would be “consequences” (ie sanctions) against churches other than the US church which chose to move forward in terms of allowing gay couples to get married. This was in the press conference after the Primates’ meeting earlier this year. Indeed, the Archbishop said that he was simply one vote amongst the 38 Provinces and he could not predict how a future Primates’ Meeting would react to another province going down this line. What had changed since that press conference, I wondered, that made the Archbishop able to make this threat in private when he was so uncertain before the world’s press of what the consequences for other churches might be if they voted to bring about change?
The answer from the Primus this afternoon was that the Anglican-Reformed Dialogue convenership is in the personal gift of the Archbishop of Canterbury and not that of the Primates.
Thus, it seems to me that the crisis in the Anglican Communion has reached something new and genuinely shocking. It would appear that the Archbishop very precisely in his own role as one of the Instruments of Communion is now threatening individual Primates with sanctions if their own provinces vote for things that he as the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks that they should not do.
That is a serious development and one which should be noted by everyone. I can’t see that this can possibly be a postive contribution to keeping the communion together.
In all of this, our synod seems to me to be working to keep our church together and not force others to say what they do not believe. The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be working on quite a different unity model whereby you can have your unity so long as you agree with him.
I think that the Primus’s response to all this was generous, measured and gracious. It was moving to hear him quote the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church who has spoken of these sanctions from the position of being descended from slaves.
If the Primus is removed from this position as a consequence of the decisions of the Scottish Synod he will join a large group of people who have been removed from a ministry either because they are gay or they support those who are gay or because they are associated with those who are positive about those who are gay. This is how homophobia works in practise. I am shocked that the Archbishop should make himself vulnerable to the charge that he (rather than the Primates or the ACC or the Lambeth Conference) works this way.
I am familiar with the experience of being told that you can’t do things because of these reasons. I stand in solidarity with the Primus and all those removed from a ministry because of their identity as gay men and women (and also those who cannot minister solely because of their gender). David Chillingworth is potentially a very unexpected victim of homophobia. We must all stand alongside him if it comes to pass.
If the synod does vote in favour of trying to keep our church together in this way then I think we’ll be offering the Anglican Communion a model that has gospel generosity at its heart. Far from something that individuals should be punished over (regardless of whether they themselves vote or don’t vote for change), I think we’ve something to offer the communion.
The votes we have before us are not really about human sexuality but about what kind of church we want to be. The Archbishop of Canterbury is gravely mistaken if he believes that threatening other primates in his own role as “first amongst equals” in the Anglican Communion will enable church unity.
The opposite is very clearly the case.