Walking in the Way of Love: A Response to the Primates Meeting

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C; Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11; Video

Well, we made NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Fox News, and CNN on Friday, so here goes a lesson in our polity, a lesson in the way we are structured in the Anglican Communion. And you need to know this so that you can make some sense out of the news that has hit the papers and airwaves. So settle in, this is going to take me a while to explain, and you are going to have to work to understand it.

Let’s start with this: The Episcopal Church has not been suspended from the Anglican Communion—repeat—we have not been kicked out of the Anglican Communion.

The Anglican Primates are comprised of the senior bishops of the 38 Anglican Provinces. The Episcopal Church is a Province; The Church of England is a Province; The Church of North India is a Province; The Church of Nigeria is a Province, and so on. So, the Primates have been meeting this past week in Canterbury, England at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A piece of their work addressed what consequences might follow for The Episcopal Church in relation to the Anglican Communion following our recent changes concerning marriage. Let me read you the recommendations of paragraphs 7 and 8 of their statement:

“7. It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

“8. We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognizing the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.”

These recommendations were adopted by a majority of the Primates present.

Please don’t focus only on the sanction part and miss the call to “maintain- conversation-with-the intention-of restoring-relationship” part.

In the full statement, the Primates also said the following, “The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.”

It is important to note that the actions of the Primates in no way change the actions that the General Convention of The Episcopal Church has taken that have moved us toward full sacramental inclusion for all people when it comes to marriage and ordination.

In Anglicanism, each Province is autonomous and free to make their own decisions with regards to matters within their Province.

It is also important to note that the Primates Meeting is but one of four Instruments of Communion for the Anglican Communion—the other three being the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference made up of all the bishops across the Communion, and the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC)—which is the only Instrument of Communion that has the involvement of lay people, priests, deacons, and religious, in addition to bishops. The ACC is the most representative body amongst the Instruments of Communion, and it is this body which facilitates the cooperative work of the churches across the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church has three representatives to the ACC. The Primates have no authority over the ACC. In fact, as a body, the Primates have no constitutional authority to enforce their decisions at all; the ACC is the only constitutional entity of the Anglican Communion, and how they choose to act on this statement will be up to them. More than you ever wanted to know about Anglican polity, right?

Even so, what the Primates have done hurts.

It especially hurts our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters for whom these actions feel like a kick in the gut.

It hurts those of us who understand that the actions our Episcopal Church has been led to take have indeed been actions guided by the Holy Spirit undertaken through a 40-year period of deep and thoughtful study of scripture and theology, as well as listening deeply to the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Episcopal Christians, not to mention soaking our discernment in prayer. This week, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, summarized this so beautifully when he told his fellow Primates this: “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

What the Primates have done hurts those of us who are deeply committed to relationships that span the world. A good part of my heart resides in the Diocese of Durgapur in West Bengal, India, and truth be told, no statement of the Primates is going to stop us from companioning with our brothers and sisters in Durgapur, and what is true of us is true of hundreds of dioceses and thousands of congregations across the Anglican Communion. Let us not think that the Anglican Communion is the Primates; the Anglican Communion is a complex web of relationships that span the world. But what the Primates have done still hurts.

And when you’re hurt, it’s hard to see where those inflicting the hurt are coming from, but I think we also have to stretch to understand more fully the context in which many in the Global South minister. A context that places some of them next door to a version of radical Islam that sees in the actions of The Episcopal Church one more sign of the encroachment of a decadent Western culture.

But what do we make of all this on a Sunday when all the lessons are dealing with abundance and generosity and MARRIAGE? What a delightful set of scriptures to sit with as we ponder all of this.

Let’s not give ourselves over to “the-Anglican-sky-is-falling.” Instead, let’s buckle down and do what we do best—meditate on scripture, and given the actions of the Primates at the Primates Meeting this week, the irony of these passages assigned for today is just too much.

Isaiah, what you got?

 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,

until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;

for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,

and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.

Okay, so maybe we take some comfort that God won’t keep silent and God won’t rest until the way of love is vindicated and the wholeness of all the people of God—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and those who think none of those manifestations of human sexuality is compatible with scripture—God won’t rest until the way of love and the wholeness of all the people of God is lighting our way.

And maybe, in the midst of all this, God is trying to call us by a new name. But understand brothers and sisters, we in The Episcopal Church are not termed Forsaken, nor are we termed Desolate. We are a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD and a royal diadem in the hand of God.

Here is what God has called us, get a load of this name, My Delight Is in Her and our land shall be called Married. Married—isn’t that beautiful. The LORD delights in us and our land shall be called Married and God is rejoicing over us. Thank you, Isaiah.

And then there’s the psalmist.

Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds…Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep…you give them drink from the river of your delights…For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light. Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you, and your favor to those who are true of heart.

Love, love, love…all the way to the heavens. And God understands actions taken to set right what has been wrong, actions taken as a matter of justice. And hard though it may be, the river from which God has given us to drink is full of delight; the well of life is deep, and as long as we keep looking to God’s light, we will continue to see light. As long as our hearts are true, and we continue to seek to know God, we will continue to be enveloped in loving-kindness.

And then we come to I Corinthians 12 and Paul’s teaching concerning spiritual gifts.

Paul doesn’t want us to be uninformed. He warns us about how we can be enticed and led astray by idols—like say, the idol of the rightness of our cause, or the idol of thinking our brothers and sisters are just unenlightened. If we are claiming to speak by the Spirit of God, we better well understand that there is no room for cursing Jesus and that includes brothers and sisters who’ve also been marked as Christ’s own forever who hold different understandings of human sexuality. There is room for critique of some of the ways that Western culture practices sexual expression—for instance, promiscuous behavior is not okay; objectifying the other is not okay; and an approach to relationships that keeps all your options open and always has an exit strategy misses the grace that comes in a committed relationship shaped by steadfast love that has weathered its share of Good Fridays and come through to Easter.

Paul goes on to explain how there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and varieties of services, but the same Lord; and varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. He explains how to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge, to another faith, to another gifts of healing, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

What would happen if our brothers and sisters across the Communion could come to see that the Spirit has given us in The Episcopal Church a particular gift to offer as we seek to serve the common good?

What would happen if we could come to see that the Spirit has given our brothers and sisters across the Communion a particular gift that is theirs to offer as they seek to serve the common good?

We have learned so much from our brothers and sisters in Durgapur about faithfulness and manifesting abundance in circumstances of devastating poverty, and they have learned so much from us.

What if we in The Episcopal Church could honor the particularity of the gifts we have been given, trusting that the same Spirit is activating all of these gifts in everyone, and that it’s the Spirit’s choosing as to which gifts are given to whom, not ours?

And then we come to the gospel. Jesus has the last word. The wine at the wedding feast has run out. Jesus doesn’t want to solve this problem; he just wants to enjoy the party for goodness sake. Even so, his mother pushes him to get involved. I am guessing that Jesus is looking down upon this holy mess in our blessed Anglican Communion and saying, “I don’t want to solve this,” and I am praying fervently for Mary to push him to get involved and stay involved. He doesn’t turn to the containers of wine; he turns to these big, huge water jars used for the Jewish rites of purification, and he orders them filled with water, and he changes that water used for one ritual purpose into the wine that allows the marriage feast to continue.

It is in our Anglican DNA for our ritual containers to grow and expand and hold new wine. The fact that I, as a woman, stand before you at this altar as a priest is evidence of that. We have not thrown out the doctrine of marriage. We have come to understand how that solid, traditional, ritual container can indeed hold the new wine of deep and committed love between people of the same gender.

And Jesus won’t just change this water into wine once, but again and again, until all of us are gathered at the wedding feast. We might need to drink the wine of charity toward those who’ve hurt us. We might need to drink the wine of understanding. We might need to drink the wine of courage to stand fast in what the Spirit has led us to do. We might need to drink the wine of reconciliation. We might need to drink the wine of agreeing to disagree, and yet, agreeing to join in the feast together anyway. Who knows what wine we will be needing to drink, but whatever it is, you can bet that Jesus is going to take what we have known the best, that which has been most familiar to us, and transform that into something new, right before our eyes.

I have been in this conversation around human sexuality my whole ordained ministry. I have prayed it through, studied it through, held it up to the light of scripture, and listened to the hearts of many, many people. The Spirit has led The Episcopal Church as a whole, and St. Luke’s in particular, to this new wine. And on that day in October when we blessed the marriage of two women, love indeed reached all the way to the heavens. I have never known such Delight in the land called Married.

But I also know that we need our brothers and sisters across the Communion and the particular gifts that the Spirit has given them. I pray that our hearts may be open to receive all that the Spirit has given them to offer for the common good.

May we never forget that we all drink from the well of life; we are all gazing into God’s light, praying for that light to guide our way; we are all seeking to know God and be true of heart.

Institutional chess aside—let us be about the way of Jesus seeking to walk ever more deeply in his Love. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

January 17, 2016