By Len Freeman
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry urged his fellow bishops to “stand upon the Rock” in the midst of current and coming challenges in church and national life during the opening worship service for the semiannual House of Bishops meeting. The group began a four-day meeting in Minnesota yesterday with an extended discussion of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s decision to invite bishops in same-sex relationships, but not to invite their spouses, to attend next summer’s Lambeth Conference.
Curry’s impassioned sermon was structured around a gospel chorus, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” He pointed to the rise of nativism, white supremacy and violence. “This country, I love it, but something’s wrong … the demonic evil that we thought we defeated in World War II is back.” The way of Jesus, Curry stressed, must be the basis for revival in the church and the world. “I will not stake the hope of this world on this world,” he added, “but on the rock.”
Curry also spoke directly to the strong opposition voiced by many bishops about the Lambeth invitations. “Some can’t go, some won’t go,” Curry noted. He urged bishops to honor each other’s decisions for the sake of mutual love and respect. Fourteen new bishops and bishops-elect were in attendance, including two (Thomas Brown of Maine and Bonnie Perry of Michigan) who have same-sex spouses. New York Assistant Bishop Mary Glasspool, consecrated in 2010, also has a same-sex spouse.
The bishops each were given a card titled “A Practice for the Lambeth Conference 2020,” based on advice composed by Martin Luther King, Jr. following the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Commitments outlined in the text included, “As you prepare to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus,” “Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory,” and “Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.”
Care for creation was a second quiet undernote in the choice of hymns and lessons. Several bishops have already announced that they plan to participate in a Global Climate Witness event later in the week. The event will be in solidarity with young people around the world who have called for a Global Climate Strike this Friday.
An afternoon conversation with bishops and their spouses focused directly on the challenges associated with preparing for the 2020 Lambeth Conference. Several presenters addressed the cross-cultural diversity within the Anglican Communion that often makes clear communication and coming to resolution more difficult.
George Sumner of Dallas, the Episcopal Church’s only representative on the Lambeth Design group presented an overview of the history and aims of the conference. He noted that seminars focused around issues like evangelism, climate, and women’s issues will be on the docket. The conference’s plenary gatherings will center around meditations on I Peter, and the bishops’ spouses will be included in some of these.
Sumner reported that 600 bishops have registered so far for the conference. Echoing a comment by the Presiding Bishop, he said of the Lambeth Design Group, “a battle royale is not what they’re looking for.” Last June, Sumner, along with two other members of the design group and several Anglican primates, issued an open letter entitled “The Lambeth We Hope For.” The letter called for a Lambeth Conference focused on our common faith in Christ, working in the service of wider church unity. “Harsh disagreement,” the letter said, “ought not to be the dominant note the world hears from us.”
Edward Konieczny of Oklahoma, who served as the Episcopal Church’s bishop representative to last spring’s meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council noted that in many languages there is no word for “human sexuality.” Coming to workable consensus between opposing views, he said, has often been complicated by differences in culture nuance and the challenges of translation.
He added that the Anglican Communion’s life is rooted in the principles of autonomy and interdependence. To many others in this diverse worldwide fellowship, Konieczny noted, “The Episcopal Church appears to like autonomy but to be not so good at interdependence.” Presiding Bishop Curry echoed the Oklahoma bishop’s sentiments, saying, “Humility for us as Americans is hard. We are quick to speak and slow to listen,” Curry said. “I am quick to speak and slow to listen, and to listen and to really hear.”
“I hope you will choose to go,” said Wendell Gibbs of Michigan. “I’m extremely disappointed at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s action, but we need to be there in the midst of that diversity. The church you will encounter at Lambeth looks nothing like the church here … be open to it.”
Alan Gates of Massachusetts spoke for others who are choosing not to go because they believe Welby’s action is a breach of trust, violating the principle of Anglican comprehensiveness. Gates said, “If the price of relationship to one set of siblings is to deny relationship to other siblings, that is too high a price for staying in that relationship.”
Mark Van Koevering, who serves now as provisional bishop of Lexington, but was formerly bishop of Niassa, Mozambique in the Province of Southern Africa, cited the fact that decisions by the Episcopal Church have already exacted major costs for the rest of the communion. Based on responses so far, he said “Two hundred bishops are not coming [to Lambeth], circa 40% of the Anglican Communion, leaving 30 million Anglicans not represented.” He added, “My advice is to go and lead by example, to listen more than speak, to seek to understand more, rather than to be understood.”
Jeffrey Lee of Chicago spoke of the need to stay in relationship with Lambeth precisely because of the suffering of African LGBT Anglicans. Lee serves on the steering committee of the Chicago Consultation, a group focused on advocacy for “the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.” The group’s website notes that “today our work is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, where we work with theologians, clergy and advocates to build networks and explore the intersection of scripture and sexuality.”
Lee said, “I’m going [to Lambeth] with the faces and stories of LGBT Africans who are often living and ministering under great stress, and at great personal risk. ‘You give us hope that it might be different’ they tell me…. They’ll be watching. It inspires me to believe we can find a common ground on the basis of our baptismal identity.”