Saturday, November 23, 2013

Christianity Anglicanism and Sexual Orientation: Bridging the Divide Through Love and Respect

An Editorial by Richard Matthews

Richard Matthews is the social media coordinator and member of the advisory board at St. Philip's Anglican Church, he is also a reader, sideman, and intercessor. However, this editorial does not reflect his official capacities at the church, nor does it speak for the parish, the diocese or the rector. What follows is a reflection of his personal views and is intended as a springboard for discussion. 


One of the reasons I am an Anglican is due to the church's respect for intellectualism and curiosity. Another reason that I am active in my parish is my affection for our church family. It is in this spirit of high regard for my fellow parishioners that I hope to share my views, while welcoming diverging perspectives.

Many people in the Anglican Communion hold seemingly unbridgeable perspectives on the subject of equal treatment for people of different sexual orientations. I want to respectfully acknowledge that there are those who do not believe that the church should be addressing these issues. However, in light of rapidly changing societal values, it seems to me that the issue of LGBT rights within the church is almost impossible to ignore.

Canadian Anglicans have been encouraged to address these issues. At the 2007 General Synod, Rev. Isaac Kawuki-Mukasa, coordinator for dialogue: ethics, inter-faith relations, asked the faith, worship and ministry committee to "engage the church in conversation on the broad issue of human sexuality in all of its complexity, using the lenses of scripture, reason, tradition and science."

The Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the Church of England, recently warned that the Anglican church is tottering on the brink of disintegration due to disputes between liberals and traditionalists. Speaking specifically to homosexuality, Archbishop Welby said the Church was coming perilously close to plunging into a “ravine of intolerance”.

I was personally struck by the recent comments of Archbishop Welby. Speaking to an audience of traditional born-again Christians, he said that they must “repent” over the way LGBT people have been treated in the past. He went on to say that most young people viewed Christians as no better than racists on the issue.

Archbishop Welby is not an advocate of gay rights by any means, he comes from the evangelical wing of the Church which takes a more traditional view of the Bible. To further illustrate the point he opposed same sex marriage when it was being debated by the British government earlier this year and as a younger priest he opposed allowing gay couples to adopt children. Nonetheless, he recently said the church now had to address the changes in public attitudes. As he explained to the General Synod in July, the strength of feeling he encountered in support of homosexuality prompted him to reassess his own beliefs and he further urged his audience to face up to a “revolution” in attitudes on sexuality.

As I see it, granting LGBT the same rights as heterosexuals is about fundamental human rights. As Archbishop Terence Finlay, retired bishop of the Anglican diocese of Toronto said following his suspension for officiating at a legal same-sex marriage:

"As an active bishop I've followed and I've upheld the oaths of the office that I took and particularly around the issue of unity in the church. But for me now, this issue has moved from one of unity to one of justice."

The issue of ordaining LGBT clergy has been very divisive as has same sex marriage. However, as a church we are not hermetically sealed off from the wider society and we must acknowledge that the world around us has changed. As Canadians are increasingly supporting the rights of the LGBT community the issue becomes ever more pressing for the church. We cannot ignore an increasingly growing global sentiment that all persons should be treated equally and with dignity regardless of who they are or who they love.

According to survey data from the Environics Institute, the portion of Canadians supporting gay marriage, which had hovered around one-third from 2001 through 2006, increased to 43 percent in 2010 and then jumped to 57 percent by 2012. Only 19 percent of Canadians reported strong disapproval.

We have come a long way in the last half century. Less than 50 years ago homosexuality was a crime In Canada. The discussion in the Anglican Church of Canada has been going on since the 1990's in places like New Westminster, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. In 2002 the Diocese of New Westminster, authorized a rite for the blessing of same-sex unions at its Diocesan Synod. This was followed by an October 2003 letter by then-primate Archbishop Michael Peers who said, "Canadian gays and lesbians will continue to be welcomed and received in our churches and to have their contributions to our common life honoured."

The 2007 Montreal synod adopted a resolution calling on the bishop to grant permission for clergy, under certain conditions, to bless duly solemnized civil marriages, including same-sex marriages. At the 2008 Montreal Synod delegates voted against two resolutions presented by people opposed to same-sex blessings.

Montreal Bishop Barry Clarke has been at the forefront of efforts to welcome the LGBT community into the Anglican church. In an opening statement to the annual synod of the Diocese of Montreal in 2008, the bishop said he believes that in the debate about same-sex issues some are being called to speak with a prophetic voice, others with a voice of caution. "For reasons, perhaps known only to God, I believe we, in the Diocese of Montreal, are among those who have been called by God to speak with a prophetic voice," Bishop Clarke said. "It is our voice that is called to affirm that all people are loved, valued and precious before God and the church. It is our voice that is called to affirm that all unions of faithful love and life-long commitment are worthy of God's blessing and a means of God's grace. In time our voice will either be affirmed by the body, or stand corrected."

Most recently the Anglican Church of Canada's Council of the General Synod authored a motion on an amendment of Canon XXI to allow marriage of same-sex couples for consideration in 2016.

The issue of the place of gays and lesbians in the Episcopal church first surfaced in the 70s, and the Diocese of Rochester (NY) started blessing same-sex couples in the late 70s. Study groups and conversations about the issue were going on in the Diocese of Washington DC in 1987, and in Massachusetts in 1990. In 2003 Gene Robinson was appointed as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. More recently, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire rescinded the appointment of Bishop James Tengatenga of Malawi as dean of a foundation at the Ivy League school over his opposition to homosexuality.

Even the Roman Catholic Church has softened its stance. For generations, homosexuality has largely been a taboo topic for the Vatican, ignored altogether or treated as “
an intrinsic moral evil,” in the words of the previous pope. However remarks made by Pope Francis in the summer of 2013 represent a new sensitivity from the Church. Pope Francis said that he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation,“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis told reporters.

He added that he did not have anything against gay people and that their sins should be forgiven like those of all Catholics. Francis said that homosexuals should be treated with “
dignity, and that no one should be subjected to...pressure because of sexual orientation.”

Despite opposition from within our own parishes and from Asian and African Anglicans, we must find a way to reconcile the Church's diverging views. As Archbishop Welby said Anglicans are called to be bridge builders, who will “find ourselves struggling with unity.” He sees the future growth of the communion in mission and in reconciliation.

As I see it we in the Anglican Church must deal with these contentious issues. This is not just a theological issue, this is one of the issues at the heart of an existential crisis that threatens the future of our parishes and the wider Anglican community.

Since joining the church I have been researching our demographic strengths and weaknesses. I have also been using this data to explore ways of expanding our reach. Based on this research I have been posting articles about why young people leave the church and why they stay. This has augured some interesting questions. First is the question of how we can welcome young people without alienating or disrespecting the views of older parishioners? Second, how can we acknowledge changing values without succumbing to being trendy?

This is a delicate balancing act. I acknowledge that any attempt to be relevant cannot come at the expense of the pillars that built the church or the venerable traditions upon which they rest. As I see it the central issue required to answer these questions comes down to accepting people's right to hold differing views.

As reviewed in a recent post, increasing church attendance from young people is not about changing the service or including a rock band, it is about listening to their views and speaking to their realities. Many young people feel that church does not accept them them, one quarter of millennials said feel that the church demonizes the issues that define their generation. One third think that the church is irrelevant and one fifth think that the church is too judgmental when it comes to sex. Another third think the church is too exclusive.

The Pew Research Center reports that 70 percent of those in the millennial generation support gay marriage.

As explained by Archbishop Welby:

"[W]e have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 think not only that what we are saying is incomprehensible but also think that we are plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice...where we make a bad impression in society at the moment is because we are seen as against things, and you talk to people and they say I don’t want to hear about a faith that is homophobic...the Church has not been good at dealing with homophobia ... in fact we have, at times, as God’s people, in various places, really implicitly or even explicitly supported it. And we have to be really, really repentant about that because it is utterly and totally wrong...I am absolutely committed not to excluding people who have a different view from me, I am also absolutely committed to listening very carefully to them. We are not going to get anywhere by throwing brickbats at each other.”

My sense is that we need to find an inclusive approach that inspires young and old alike. I think we can find Biblical support for inclusion, despite some “clobber” verses that literalists interpret as opposing homosexuality. We should remember that the Bible also tells us that women should be veiled and we should not eat shellfish etc.This point is made very eloquently by Rachel Held Evans

Whatever our personal views on the subject may be, I think the answer to some of these difficult questions are addressed in the overarching theme expressed throughout the New Testament:

"Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins." (1 Peter 4:8)

As Christians we are called to resist hatred and to be generous with our love. "Hatred stirs up conflict but love covers over all wrongs" (Proverbs 10:12).

Love is the essence of the Christian message. In my view, love is as close as most of us get to understanding the mystery and majesty of faith. It is a cross-cultural universal that appeals to different age groups and helps us to navigate the contentious theological differences that define our attitudes towards sexuality.

I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I believe that as a parish and as a wider Anglican community we need to learn to accept each others differences. Archbishop Welby offered a suggestion that may be useful in helping us to deal with our differences on this and other issues. He urged Christians to speak out about what they are for rather than what they are against.

As one young parishioner explained, “I come to church because of the sense that everyone is welcome to share their opinions and ideas."

We have many challenges ahead and in my view we will best be able to deal with them if we are able to approach our disagreements as a loving Christian community.

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