The world seems to be full of bishops apologising to LGBT people.
However, there seems to be a curious absence in the world of LGBT people freely accepting those apologies and being thus able to take their place as full members of the churches.
In the last week we’ve had the latest document on family life to come from the Vatican and it is very clear that there’s a change in tone from the current pope and it is hard not to welcome that. However, it is also equally clear that there’s little change in substance.
Much the same applies in the Anglican world.
Earlier this year, we had the most profound words from the Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury. However, we must begin to ask whether they were empty words or words that mean something.
After the Primates’ Meeting he was reported to have said that it was a “constant source of deep sadness that people are persecuted for their sexuality”. This was widely reported at the time as an apology to LGBT people. This was at the meeting at which the Primates decided to take action that would punish the US based Episcopal Church for treating LGBT people as, well, ordinary people. Such action was somehow too much for some members of the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop was left trying to explain that the action against the US Church was not a set of sanctions but rather a set of consequences. Oh, “all actions have consequences”, the Archbishop reminded us again and again.
The trouble for the Archbishop is that apologies have consequences too. Actual apologies that is. Apologies that don’t mark a new start, that don’t demonstrate a turning around, that don’t exhibit that metanoia experience that we all know is the gospel in action, are indicative of rather cheap grace and don’t amount very much to being apologies that should be taken seriously.
Justin Welby has his work cut out as Archbishop of Canterbury and he has my sympathies and sometimes even my prayers. However, his work won’t make any coherent sense if he goes around making insipid apologies to gay communities whilst all the while being the public face of a body which is engaged in persecuting LGBT people in its actions. The sanctions/consequences/actions against the US church were symbolic of the real persecutions that LGBT people face daily, particularly those LGBT people who live in parts of the world where we have most to fear. And the trouble is, in the church we believe rather strongly that symbols matter rather a lot.
I’m not sure what the opposite of grace is, nor what the opposite of a sacrament is. Perhaps we need to coin a word. The “consequences” that that Archbishop had the misfortune to be explaining to the world’s press after the Primates’ Meeting seem to me to the the outward sign of an inward and yet curiously visible spiritual cruelty.
You don’t get to be a front for that kind of speech and also be taken seriously when making apologies to the very people who are on the blunt end of the actions.
The trouble for bishops making apologies is that real apologies have consequences too. Real apologies mean turning things round; doing things differently; starting anew. And the fact that we’ve not seen that yet indicates that we shouldn’t take the apologies of the Archbishop of Canterbury as meaning anything other than that he’d rather people didn’t think he was beastly.
But beastly is as beastly does.
This week some of the pernicious “consequences” of the Primates’ Meeting have been worked out in the context of the rather more healthily constituted body the Anglican Consultative Council which is meeting in Lusaka at the moment. And all the while the threat remains that other churches in the communion which dare to be nice to those poor unfortunate homosexualists might also be consequenced themselves.
The Anglican Consultative Council is supposed to be a body in which the voices of lay people and clergy who are not bishops is heard internationally. It seems rather a pity then that they’ve just elected not only a bishop to chair it for the next six years but one of the Primates themselves.
How long will it be before we realise that we’ve got a bigger problem with the Episcopate in the Anglican Communion than we have with LGBT people who just want to get on with the rather extraordinary calling of just being an ordinary follower of Jesus.
Only this week I heard of yet another person unwilling to join the Anglican Communion because it is known for being at best ambivalent about the way it treats LGBT people. These disputes are costing us members and we should not take seriously mission initiatives which come from those who are making mission in Western countries almost impossible.
And still the absurdities of the situation grow. This week one of the churches which the Church of England (and my own church for that matter) is in full communion with decided to open marriage to same-sex couples. The Church of Norway joins the Church of Sweden in doing this joyfully and thus welcoming gay and lesbian people fully into its life of faith. This passed with almost no comment in the Anglican world. Are gay Norwegians really not as spiritually wicked to those of an anti-gay persuasion than gay people from Little England? Are gay Lutherans just not worth a schism? If not, why not? Do we think that these Lutherans, upon whom we’ve expended rather a lot of ecumenical agape in recent years, just can’t help themselves? Why are gay Anglicans in the US the target and not gay Lutherans in Norway? I have to confess I just don’t get it. Does one church have better lesbians that the other. Or more wicked ones?
And it leaves people like the Archbishop of Canterbury exposed. He may have a gift at the moment of keeping many (though clearly not everyone) in the Anglican world talking to one another and that’s not to be sniffed at. However, there is a danger that whilst the talking goes on, the church becomes so internally incoherent that it risks looking spectacularly foolish in public.
And that is not what being a fool for Christ is all about.