Weekend in Sydney II

By George Clifford

Last fall, I was a tourist in Sydney, Australia. On the advice of a kindly lady on duty at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, I went to St. James in Sydney for worship that morning (see part 1 of this essay). I expected to find a recognizably Anglican service in a properly equipped church building, i.e., one with an altar. St. James exceeded my expectations: an attractive building, outside and inside, complemented a well-done Eucharistic liturgy. Serendipitously, providentially, synchronistically, as a result of kismet, or however one’s theological worldview characterizes coincidence, that Sunday’s preacher at St. James was the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. During the service, the celebrant announced an afternoon forum led by Canon Kearon and that the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, on sabbatical from New Hampshire and present in the congregation, would attend.

During the afternoon session, Canon Kearon in his opening remarks stated that the energy and money involved in the Windsor Report process detracts from the Church’s mission. He said that as he travelled around the Communion, he observes an increasing number of people who want to get on with the mission of the Church. Anger is building among Anglicans, he declared, over the continuing furor linked to the Windsor Report because that furor is not very Anglican, i.e., opposing the opinion of others rather than embracing diversity.

Although The Episcopal Church has engaged in extensive listening processes on homosexuality and related issues since the early 1970s, most of the Communion has not done so, in spite of requests from Lambeth 1978 and 1988. Consequently, Canon Kearon noted each group tends to identify with the pain on its side and to view others as lunatics. Listening promotes hearing the pain on both sides while promoting theological conversation.

Bishop Robinson commented that efforts to separate issues of sexuality from mission create a false dichotomy if one views Jesus as reaching out to the marginalized, pulling them to the center within God’s embrace. Otherwise, for Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered (GLBT) persons to return to the Church is analogous with an abused spouse returning to the abused.

Bruce McAteer, General Secretary of the Anglican Church in Australia, also present that afternoon, described an entire day at the just concluded General Synod of the Australian Church devoted to listening to the pain of GLBT people. That day at Synod, four Australian GLBT Anglicans told their stories of pain and exclusion in depth. The process entailed listening with no debate, no votes, offering one model for what other provinces or dioceses might do. Several people with whom I spoke that morning and afternoon who had attended the Australian General Synod volunteered affirmations of how powerful and transforming that listening process had been.

Canon Kearon said that world, divided by race, ethnicity, and religion, needs reconciliation, briefly mentioning his experiences in Northern Ireland. In particular, he lamented the lack of dialogue within the Anglican Communion on major, divisive issues such as the authority of the Bible (hermeneutics), the nature of authority within the Church, and the relation of faith to society. Two conflicting versions of polity currently co-exist within the Anglican Communion: one democratic and one authoritarian, impeding dialogue and relationships. TEC exemplifies the democratic polity, the Church in Nigeria the authoritarian. Canon Kearon identified the heart of Anglicanism as meeting together and forming relationships, a process complicated by those conflicting concepts of ecclesiastical authority.

As an example of the Anglican way, Canon Kearon pointed to the ongoing development of Christian bio-ethics. The Anglican Church takes science seriously and engages in dialogue with science while concurrently recognizing the dynamic nature of tradition and scripture. That creative dialogue has consistently put the Anglican Church at the leading edge of the developing field of bio-ethics without threatening to disrupt Anglican unity. The continuing bio-ethics dialogue thus illustrates the reconciling potential and power of Anglicanism’s relational character in dealing with substantive, divisive issues.

Canon Kearon remains confident the Anglican Communion will survive. He declined to speculate on possible changes beyond acknowledging that the Anglican Communion in the future will embody a different type of communion than it did in the past. The Archbishop of Canterbury invites bishops to attend Lambeth 2008, he reminded us, and the Archbishop has said an invitation neither certifies a Bishop’s orthodoxy nor invites a Bishop to participate in a boxing match.

Personally, the most insightful portions of the day were the times that I spent in private conversations with many of those attending. From those conversations, I have begun to formulate an answer to my question of why homosexuality has become the Anglican Communion’s central, divisive controversy. After all, attitudes about homosexually have never constituted a theologically defining issue of Christian identity.

Three significant factors apparently coalesce around controversies over homosexuality to make it the prime proxy for the major but publicly unacknowledged issues facing the Anglican Communion. Those issues are African nationalism, anti-globalism, and anti-Americanism. Sex, non-serendipitously, uniquely adds emotional energy to the controversy, galvanizing forces on both sides.

If I am correct in identifying those three factors, an identification for which I can take no credit but honor the request of others not to identify them, then Episcopalians in the United States aligned with another province place themselves in a vulnerable position. At some point, the current controversies will move to a backburner, no longer receiving extensive media attention and no longer being Anglicanism’s front burner issue. What will be the follow-on expressions of African nationalism, of anti-globalism, and of anti-Americanism? Will those three forces remain aligned or diverge? Will African provinces, beset by their own pressing problems, continue to remain interested and invested in American missions? Will U.S. sources continue to fund African missions in the U.S.?

Conversely, if those three issues are the real source of controversy, when will the Anglican Communion dare to engage those issues? What does The Episcopal Church stand to lose by raising those three issues for discussion within the Anglican Communion?

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, on exchange with the Royal Navy in London, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School. He taught philosophy at the Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School.

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