We live and worship in an interconnected and complex world. The Lambeth Commission has just released a thoughtful and carefully considered report which expresses the reality of that interconnectedness for the Episcopal Church and the other 37 provinces of the Anglican Communion.
It is important for us to listen carefully, prayerfully and humbly to the reflections of our brothers and sisters across the world-wide Communion. In this attitude of listening, we hope to understand the unique perspectives that church leaders from many countries and cultures bring to the issues of the day. Such listening will provide us with an invaluable, if sometimes painful, opportunity to see ourselves through the eyes of others. This is an especially rare and valuable moment for us because it is offered by those who love us as brothers and sisters.
While this thoroughly Anglican document will give us much to reflect on, it is important to remember that it is the beginning of a process, not the end of one. The goal of the Lambeth Commission is to provide the framework for a discussion throughout the Anglican Communion about the ways in which we can stay in communion with those with whom we differ. We must remember that those differences are many, and go beyond the issues of human sexuality raised by church actions in the United States and Canada. They include plural marriages as in some provinces in Africa, lay presidency of the Eucharist in some dioceses in Australia, and the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopacy, which is still a divisive issue within the Church of England and elsewhere.
Common to these issues are deeper questions about the interrelationship between faith and culture, and the acceptable parameters for interpretation of Scripture. The questions remind us that our goal cannot simply be to eliminate differences. We recognize, however, that there are differences which can drive us apart and rupture relationship. So the issue addressed by the Lambeth Commission report is how to avoid differences which may lead to schism, and still live together with differences which are serious, but do not justify a permanent rupture. This report addresses that issue.
Now that the report is public, we will proceed in good Anglican fashion to subject it to extensive debate and discussion. It will be discussed here at home at the convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York next month. If interest warrants, there will be other organized discussions around our Diocese. It will be discussed in parishes and dioceses across the Episcopal Church and around the world. In early January, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church will have a special meeting to consider the report and its implications. The Executive Committee of the Primates Council will consider it, and so will the full Council of Primates, which will meet in February. The Anglican Consultative Council, the only Communion-wide body that contains laity, priests and bishops, will review the study when it meets this month and again in June of 2005. The report in final form will also be referred to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
What action might result? One of the things that some find frustrating, and many find confusing, is that the Anglican Communion operates not through strict hierarchical structure, but through a system of reciprocal invitation.
As an Episcopalian and an Anglican, I place great value on precisely this loose structure, which recognizes the variety of settings where the Church does its work, and trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit to work with the faithful who labor to be fruitful servants of our Lord within the rich and varied tapestry of our common humanity. Indeed, this loose structure has evolved precisely in order to give expression to a desire and a need to be a Church that is marked by an embracing spirit rather than an exclusive and excluding one.
As we set out on this long and difficult debate, I remain convinced that we as a Church are called to be a place of welcome and a word of hope to gay and lesbian men and women who seek to live their lives as faithful Christian people, in obedience to the Lord of life who called them into being and asks them to follow him in all the fullness of their being.
I would also like to draw attention to a comment by Archbishop Robin Eames in his foreword to this report. He said, “Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our current difficulties is the negative consequence it could have on the mission of the Church to a suffering and bewildered world.” He went on to remind us of the staggering impact in the world of “poverty, violence, HIV/AIDS, famine and injustice.” These are indeed the primary challenges facing our Church, and I hope that its leaders in ECUSA and throughout the Communion can push ahead through the “current difficulties” so we can refocus attention on those pressing mission objectives.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk
Bishop of New York