As the leaders of the global Anglican Communion converge in Canterbury this week for a week-long meeting, the number one concern for 80 million Anglicans worldwide is whether the church will have a major schism over same-sex unions. As a Catholic priest who has been involved in research and advocacy for equity and inclusivity in faith-based education and pastoral ministry, my hope is that this meeting will come up with a broad set of programs and best practices to address the cries of our gay brothers and sisters who are often treated as non-persons in our churches.
The attempt by Pope Francis to bring the Catholic Church to embrace a more inclusive approach to same-sex persons at the Roman synod in October 2015 was frustratingly a failure. However, the problem of people's sexuality is not one that can simply be legislated away or put under the carpet. The universal Christian community must open her doors to the gay community and embrace them as children of God because their sexuality is a gift from God meant to enrich the church and society. Tokens of goodwill and platitudes will not do, nor will simply proof-texting passages from the Bible or citing arcane church documents meet the command of love for these brothers and sisters who are knocking at the doors of the mercy of the churches and Christians. Each generation of Christians reading the signs of the times and drawing inspiration from the priorities and practices of Jesus Christ must find its own answers to the new questions of the day.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has trod a similar path as Pope Francis in grasping toward a church focusing more on issues of poverty and global justice rather than divisive personal issues. But some in the communion - especially those from the southern hemisphere of the globe - feel the question of sexuality is a central issue which needs to be dealt with using biblical principles.
There are indications that the rift has gone so deep that this meeting will only be the final death-knell on the structures of unity in the Anglican Communion.
But we shouldn't forget there are already, for practical purposes, two Anglican Communions, both of which claim biblical support for their stand. The conservative wing, Global Anglican Future, is led by the Australian Peter Jensen, who insists that unfailing allegiance to traditional marriage rites ought to trump institutional unity. The more liberal and progressive wing is headed by Welby himself, who angered many in Nigeria by appointing Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon as a top aide; his opposition to anti-gay legislation in Nigeria and many other African countries ran afoul of conservative ideology.
Those Anglican leaders in Africa who have stood up for same-sex liberality have suffered for these beliefs. A Kenyan Anglican pastor, Michael Kimundu, was expelled from the church because he continued to insist that his faith as a Christian required him to embrace the fledgling and often persecuted LGBTQ community in East Africa. Apart from South Africa, there is no Anglican Communion in Africa favorably disposed towards same-sex unions - at least officially.
Conditions in the United States are also tense. The conservative Anglican Church of North America led by Archbishop Foley Beach commands a sizeable population of US Anglicans who hold on to traditional teaching on homosexuality. When Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay Anglican bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, Archbishop Foley called it an "open depravity."
Words were even stronger in Africa, where Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria said:
The consecration of a bishop, who divorced his wife and separated from his children, now living as a non-celibate homosexual, clearly demonstrates that authorities within Ecusa (the Episcopal Church of United States) consider that their cultural-based agenda is of far greater importance than obedience to the Word of God, the integrity of the one mission of God in which we all share, the spiritual welfare and unity of the worldwide Anglican Communion and our ecumenical fellowship and inter-faith relationships.
But the African position is quite different from a more open disposition by the Anglican communions in Brazil, Canada, South India, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales and some communions in England, some of whom have called on the church to repent for discriminating against lesbian and gay Christians and treating them as second-class citizens. While the conservatives emphasize verses on men "laying" with men, the liberals emphasize verses on acceptance of others.
These divergent readings of scripture are the root of the crisis in the Anglican Communion and explain why this troubled marriage may end in divorce. Since the 19th century, when the Anglican Church defined itself, it has accepted the normativity of the Holy Scripture as the primary controlling authority for Church life and practices. Indeed, since the early 20th Century, Protestant theologians have given greater attention and resonance to the theology of the Word as assuming primacy over individual life styles. Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer among others tried to recover the truth - content of Protestant theology and morality. They concentrated on the centrality of Christ in salvation history and the transcendental nature of the Christian truth, and its hold on human life and reality in general.
Many Catholics will see the present crisis in the Anglican Communion as the greatest reason why the Catholic Church should not change her position on the sinfulness of same-sex relations. When former Vatican top official, Msgr. Krzysztof Charamsa came out as an openly gay priest on the eve of the Vatican Synod on the Family in October 2015, he was immediately dismissed from the clerical state and from his position at the Vatican. He had argued in an interview that he came out in order to draw attention to the fact that "the Catholic Church is homophobic and very difficult and harsh towards gays."
Many people might dismiss his claim as a subjective judgment, but Archbishop Idowu-Fearon in a recent interview on BBC stated that all churches must deal with the challenge of sexuality and that it is not simply an Anglican problem.
As a priest myself, I agree with him. Homosexuality is not simply a Christian problem to be solved rather it is a human mystery which needs to be embraced with respect, reverence and love. Indeed, the ultimate question is about what it means to be human. In Christian language, it is all about what it means to be a child of God. Christian anthropology, building on her Judeo-Christian tradition, asserts that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.
What it means in concrete terms is that being gay is an integral part of the fullness of the beauty of any human person who is gifted with such an orientation by God. The capacity to see this beauty is what is at stake for all the primates coming to this meeting at Lambeth. As a Catholic priest, I will be praying for them in the hope that they come out with a welcoming and tolerant message which will illumine the dark and painful world of many of our gay brothers and sisters both inside and outside the Anglican Communion. We all have a stake in this meeting, regardless of our orientation or our denomination.