Posted by: Titus Presler | January 15, 2016

Episcopal mission must continue in the face of Anglican primates’ sanctions

The decision of the Anglican Primates’ Meeting on Jan. 14 to place sanctions on the Episcopal Church USA for its General Convention’s approval of same-sex marriage last summer is a serious blow to the standing of the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion and, possibly, to its global mission work.

The primates’ decision, which is reported to have been affirmed by two-thirds of the 38 senior bishops present, does not in any explicit way limit the Episcopal Church’s participation in inter-Anglican mission work, whether through missionaries or participation in joint efforts in evangelism, church-planting, education, healthcare or justice.

Rather the decision excludes the Episcopal Church from certain specific official functions:

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these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal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.

Thus it appears that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry can continue to participate in Primates’ Meetings and that the church’s three representatives can continue to participate in the Anglican Consultative Council, though in neither of these venues can Episcopal representatives participate in decisions about doctrine or polity.  It is not clear what the standing will be of Episcopalians already on various internal committees that are not related to ecumenical or interfaith matters.

Nevertheless the primates’ decision may prompt some Anglican provinces that support the decision to curtail mission collaboration with the Episcopal Church, whether through the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society or through the hundreds, even thousands, of missional links that have been developed by Episcopal dioceses and congregations with Anglican dioceses and congregations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

All this is unfortunate.  Like much of the controversy since the 2003 consecration of a gay Episcopal bishop, the primates’ decision once again exhibits the Anglican Communion as a community in turmoil.  Despite the primates’ declared desire to focus equally on climate change, religious violence, war, poverty and ethnic hatred, the world will perceive the group as focused on sexuality.  Indeed, it is clear from the primates’ communiqué that this issue occupied center stage.

Apart from public perceptions, it will be extremely unfortunate if actual collaborative mission work in evangelism, church-planting, education, healthcare and justice is curtailed as a result of the primates’ decision.  Some primates and their provinces are adamantly opposed to collaboration with the Episcopal Church and cut off many ties in the first decade of the 2000s, so yesterday’s decision may not change much in those locales.  It is possible that some primates sat only uncomfortably in the majority, sensing that not siding with censure could expose their churches at home to criticism and violence at the hands of non-Christians alert for signs of capitulation to European and North American cultural norms.  Such leaders would likely support missional collaboration continuing quietly with the Episcopal Church.

Often lost in the heat of the debate about biblical teaching and ethical standards is that both sides not only claim to be concerned about mission but both sides are actually concerned about mission.  As I have written elsewhere:

One damaging effect of the sexuality controversy on mission is the obverse of the renewed cherishing of mission as a criterion of Christian faithfulness: mission has become a cudgel with which various sides of the issue beat the other sides.  Traditionalists and progressives alike accuse each other of being obsessed with sex—whether through culture-bound permissiveness or through culture-bound homophobia—and inattentive to mission imperatives.  In fact, all sides are concerned about mission.  Progressives are zealous about the fullness of God’s mission being extended to and through homosexual persons.  Traditionalists are concerned lest the integrity of God’s mission be fatally compromised by what they view as a repudiation of biblical morality. Thus the sexuality controversy is not simply a distraction from mission, as is often alleged, but it is actually about mission.  Dialogue and mutual understanding would be enhanced if, instead of excluding each other from the mission table, all sides could acknowledge that others have strong missional commitments in the controversy that are worthy of respect and discussion.

It will not be surprising if Archbishop Justin Welby comes in for criticism for convening the 2016 Primates’ Meeting, given this outcome.  That would be unfortunate and unfair.  Welby came into office in February 2013 with an avowed concern for reconciliation within the communion as well as throughout the world.  His first appointment was to a new office, Director of Reconciliation, to which David Porter was named.  Welby made a point of visiting every primate in the communion in his/her province as his first order of business, and he completed this strenuous exercise in short order, thereby building the personal network of friendship with leaders that is crucial to his ministry.  The primates’ meeting pattern has generally been annual or biannual, but tension had resulted in a meeting not being held since 2011, so it was high time.  Further delay would constitute sheer avoidance.  Welby doubtless considered that yesterday’s outcome was possible, but it could not be foreseen as inevitable.

Meanwhile many Episcopalians are understandably upset about the decision.  Some question the usefulness of the Anglican Communion and advocate the Episcopal Church shaking the dust off its feet and being content to being excluded.  Some call for the Episcopal Church and other progressive provinces to form their own progressive subset within or outside the communion.  Some call for cutting off the Episcopal Church’s substantial financial contribution to the Anglican Communion, which would put a crimp in communion offices, staffing and activities.

All such responses would be premature, unfaithful and damaging :

  • Such responses would be premature: We should be taking the long view, as we have since 2003 despite criticism and an instance of our Anglican Consultative Council members being sanctioned for a time. The Episcopal Church was the first Anglican province outside the Church of England, and our establishment in 1789 as an autonomous church in communion with the see of Canterbury set many of the contours of what the Anglican Communion has always been. It may be decades before the sexuality controversy settles down, and continuing developments around the world point toward our church’s stance being vindicated in the long run, not repudiated.
  • Such responses would be unfaithful: The sexuality conflict is political, certainly, but it is also theological, and our deportment in it should be theologically guided. Our ecclesiology declares that both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are expressions of the Body of Christ in the world. That reality calls us to exercise whatever ministry continues to be open to us in the communion, and to avoid renouncing this or that ministry or body.  Further, God calls us to patience and forebearance.  These virtues would not be encouraged in scripture unless they were hard to exercise, unless there were strong temptations to retaliate with tit for tat, strike back when struck, take our marbles and go home, and so on.  Instead, we are exhorted to be patient and forebearing when provoked.  We are in relationship, and we must continue in relationship.  Indeed, the primates themselves had different views but were able to commit to continue walking together.  So should we all.
  • Such responses would be damaging: Relationships in the Body of Christ are precious and should be preserved despite adversity. Several hundred thousand Episcopalians have relationships with Anglicans around the world that are deep, affectionate and lasting.  These relationship have so far withstood the pressures of differences around human sexuality, and most of them have the capacity to withstand this latest setback.  We should resolutely maintain and nourish those relationships.  As for finance, the Episcopal Church as a whole should not withdraw financial support from official Anglican bodies, nor should other Episcopal entities draw back financially.  God’s mission through the communion deserves our support, even if we are for a time limited in how we can participate through certain channels of the communion.

It follows from this that Episcopal dioceses, congregations and individuals should proceed with their international missional commitments with other Anglicans right through this setback and into the future.  If a diocese has a joint venture with a diocese in an African province that has moved against the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal side should carry on unless there is some rejection from the African side.  If a congregation has an ongoing missional engagement with a diocese or congregation in Asia, it should feel free to continue unless there is some explicit negative move from the Asian side.

God is on mission.  Always.  Everywhere.  Through us.  Through Anglicans around the world, whether they agree or disagree with the Episcopal Church.  God’s call to share in that mission is still here, persisting.




  1. When I was an Episcopal missionary in Africa, I found locals to be curious, willing to engage, and as open-minded as Americans on sexuality issues. The hysteria, vitriol, and hostility came from American and Australian missionaries. And because sexuality issues are so intertwined with the AIDS epidemic, the discussion is far more urgent and necessary in Africa.

    If liberal Episcopalians curtail their mission engagement with Africa, they will be giving up exactly those valuable personal relationships that can increase understanding, empathy, and cross-cultural competence in both directions. They will be ceding those relationships and all the discussions that occur in them to the conservatives.

    • Thanks for this good comment, Ann.

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