When Human Sexuality and Anglican Polity Meet

The College of Bishops of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) released a pastoral statement on human sexuality and identity in mid-January. At the time, I thought about assessing it here, like I did with the Nashville Statement, the PCA’s report on human sexuality, and the CRC’s report on human sexuality. But the ACNA statement seemed so benign that there was not much that I thought I could say. The statement held that there is no guarantee, though there is the possibility, that Christians experiencing same-sex attraction will see an end to that attraction in this life. No comment is made on whether same-sex attraction or orientation is itself sinful or needs to be something repented. The statement even-handily evaluated the ways in which “same-sex Christian” or “gay Christian” are used, but then said, “We do not believe it wise nor commendable to adopt categorically the language of ‘gay Christian,’ or ‘same-sex attracted Christian’ as the default description for those who experience same-sex attraction.”

From my outsider perspective, this is the only firm and clear line drawn in the statement over the question of same-sex identity. None of the other questions prompted by Gay Christianity’s Side B were answered by the bishops, even if they were acknowledged. Earlier this week, a group of Anglicans published a letter, “Dear Gay Anglican”, that attempted to continue the pastoral conversation about loving those who are same-sex attracted and affirm a pastoral commitment to same-sex attracted Anglicans. The only notable aspect of the letter itself was the use of the term “gay Anglican” instead of “gay Christian”.

Yet, this letter prompted a furious, public response from ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach. His response was far more telling than either the initial statement or the letter. Beach said the letter “replacing ‘gay Christian’ with ‘gay Anglican’ is pretty much in your face” and that some of authors were angrily using an “in your face” attitude to show disagreement with the bishops’ guidance on the term “gay Christian.” It’s not clear to me how he reconciles his characterization of the letter with his assertion that the bishops “were not telling people how to refer to themselves.” Well, which is it? If the bishops’ guidance is not binding then why criticize people who don’t follow it for being in your face?

Beach said that the letter had “international ramifications” and other Anglican provinces had contacted him with concerns about it because “in many of our partner provinces, the practice of homosexuality is against the law, and to make matters more difficult, they usually don’t understand the nuances of the word ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual attraction’ — they just hear the practice of same-sex immorality.” His point is that the letter is unhelpful and divisive because of this difference. This is wrongheaded: if there really is a partnership of equals, the appropriate response is not hide internal discussions which includes nuances, but to encourage the partners to understand the nuances. Or, perhaps, the partner provinces do understand the nuances but are informed and reject them. Regardless, Beach’s goal is for ACNA members to self-censor because their allegedly less-theologically sophisticated partners will be concerned. Not only did this come off as dismissive of the intelligence of ACNA’s provincial partners, it has a chilling effect on openness within ACNA. Saying things like, “If you are one of the clergy who signed on to this, I expect you to send me an email explaining why you signed a letter and beginning a private, non-punitive, conversation with me about your concerns” only compounds this and communicates that the clergy who signed the letter, will, in fact, face retaliation for their actions.

This raises an additional question: What, exactly, is the nature of the office archbishop within episcopal polity? I’ve engaged before with the biblical arguments for episcopal polity, but I have yet to see a biblical argument made for the office of archbishop as distinct from bishop. Neither the practice of the historic episcopate, nor the 39 Articles, require it. If the letter’s signatories decline to contact Beach, have they violated their vows? Are they rebelling against church authority? Beach also said “the bishops are not going to back down on our conclusions” in their statement, but isn’t the College of Bishops subordinate to the Provincial Assembly and Council within ACNA’s constitution and canons? The 39 Articles discuss the authority of church councils, but not a college of bishops; if presbyter and bishop are perionyms, as Anglicans maintain, doesn’t that indicate that the presbytery (i.e. church synod or council) to which bishops belong has hierarchical authority over the College of Bishops? And since priests and laity can be part of the Provincial Assembly and Council, shouldn’t there be freedom to openly discuss concerns that those bodies may need to address? And since the statement from the bishops appears to be guidance rather than obligation, it is unclear how publicly disagreeing with it undermines the authority of the church.

Human sexuality and identity are some of the most pastorally pressing issues facing the church. Since the bishops’ statement mostly provided broad, pastoral guidance on the topic, allowing the ministers of the church to engage in ongoing, public dialogue about how to pastor within those guides without fear of retribution should be seen as a necessity and a good.