LONDON (RNS) — The primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion will face another tough test next week when they gather in the U.K. to grapple with the Scottish Episcopal Church’s backing of same-sex marriage, among other issues.
The bishops will meet in Canterbury two months after the first gay Anglican wedding took place in Scotland, following the SEC’s June vote to alter its canon law, which had previously defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
The move by the Scots has upset African primates in particular and three of them have already said they will boycott next week’s gathering. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who has responsibility for convening primates’ meetings, has indicated how difficult the meeting is likely to be, saying that the leaders of the Anglican provinces would gather together to pray, and even “to weep with one another.”
The talks, which run from Oct. 2-6, give Anglican leaders an opportunity to discuss a wide spectrum of issues, from climate change to poverty. But as in the past, these discussions are likely to be overshadowed by conflicts over sexuality.
Those that do attend the meeting may consider some sort of punitive measure against the SEC, just as they did with American Episcopalians at the last primates’ meeting in Canterbury in 2016 for similarly recognizing same-sex marriage. The Americans were banned from representing the communion at ecumenical and interfaith talks for three years.
The Scots, however, are unlikely to be fazed by the prohibition. They went ahead with their change even after their then-primate, David Chillingworth, had checked with Welby to ask if they could expect the same treatment as the Americans should they endorse gay marriage — and learned that they would.
A leading advocate of Christian gay marriage in Scotland, Kelvin Holdsworth, provost of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, described any action that may be taken against the Scottish church as “a price worth paying.”
Just how wide the gap is between north and south in the Anglican Communion over sexual matters has become evident in recent days, with flurries of defiant words from both sides.
Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria, who is chairman of the conservative African organization Global Anglican Future Conference, or GAFCON, and is boycotting the primates’ meeting, is urging the communion to back the conventional view that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman.
“Now we are living in the midst of the next great Reformation," he wrote to GAFCON supporters earlier this month. "In our day there is broken fellowship, over homosexual practice, same sex marriage and the blurring of gender identity, none of which are mentioned in the Creeds, but all of which contradict fundamental biblical understandings of marriage and human identity.”
On the other side of the debate, the Rev. Giles Goddard, chair of the Human Sexuality Group of the Church of England’s Synod, argued that the status quo was not an option. In an open letter to the primates, the group, which represents 240 synod members and wants the Church of England to be fully inclusive of LGBT people, reminds the primates that “the direction of travel” for the church is now “clearer than ever.”
Yet Goddard acknowledges that the status quo enjoys strong support.
“Marriage between a man and a woman is the majority stance of the Anglican Communion and of citizens of the world but just because so many people say something does not mean it is right,” he said.
“We have to recognize other loving relationships and want people to be able to live in accordance with the Gospels.”
Goddard said that it was possible for Anglicans in different countries to have different takes on personal morality.
“In some provinces they don’t yet have women priests, but we are still Anglicans,” he said.
The voices opposing same-sex marriage in the Anglican Communion, Goddard continued, were small in number but very loud. “They are becoming more shrill. They know the tide of history is against them.”
The Church of England is unlikely to follow the SEC anytime soon and allow same-sex marriage. Although in February its synod rejected a report by its bishops that said marriage in church should only be between a man and a woman, it is restricted in allowing gay weddings: As England's "established church," it would require parliamentary legislation to change the rules of marriage.
The row in the Anglican Communion has rumbled on since the primates’ last meeting in 2016. Then Welby made a public apology for the way gay people have been treated in the past by the churches. The primates also issued a communiqué condemning homophobic prejudice and violence.
There may be some unpredictability, however, in the Canterbury gathering, for 16 of the primates — there are 38 in total — have been appointed since their last meeting.