The worldwide Anglican Communion’s recently imposed restrictions on its United States branch, the Episcopal Church, will likely not change anything for local Episcopalians, church leaders say.
The Anglican Communion’s different provinces are largely autonomous, Bishop Michie Klusmeyer said.
“I dare say many of the Episcopalians don’t really take notice of what the national church is doing, let alone what the international church is doing,” Klusmeyer said.
Anglican leaders last week restricted the Episcopal Church from any policy-setting position for three years over the U.S. church’s stance on gay marriage. In a press conference Friday, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was careful to refer to the communion’s actions as “consequences,” not sanctions.
Last summer, the Episcopal Church’s general convention voted to allow clergy to solemnize marriages of same-sex couples.
“That is a departure from the traditional understanding of holy matrimony because holy matrimony has traditionally been defined as a union between a man and a woman,” Klusmeyer said.
Tension over gay relationships and women’s ordination has been building in the communion for years. That tension reached a tipping point in 2003 when the New York-based Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson.
The contention over same-sex relationships largely comes from churches in the African countries of Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania, Klusmeyer said.
“[They] are the three churches that are the most upset about this,” he said. “Other parts of the communion around the world may not agree with what we’ve done but they won’t necessarily pick up their marbles and walk away or cause problems for the Episcopal Church.”
The Rev. Melissa Remington, rector of St. Christopher Episcopal Church on Edgewood Drive in Charleston, said she, like other clergy, was saddened by the communion’s decision. She’s hopeful about being able to continue the conversation on the issue, though.
“I feel like it just takes time for people to understand each other and their differences,” Remington said.
Remington’s congregation, which is the result of a merger of four Episcopal churches in Charleston, is very diverse, she said. Thirty percent of the congregation is black, she said. Remington said she couldn’t speak for all of her church members’ views on gay marriage, but the church honors and respects all voices.
“I hope and pray there just needs to be time to understand each other’s life reality and cultural reality, because they’re very different depending on where you are in the world. [Jesus] was the one who went out and raised up those who were marginalized in society, and we have a responsibility to do that.”
St. John’s Episcopal Church, on Quarrier Street in Charleston, has a long history of supporting gay rights. In the 1970s, the Rev. Jim Lewis controversially blessed gay couples in the church. The Straight and Gay Alliance got its start within the church’s walls. Since May 2015, the church has displayed a gay pride flag alongside one for the Episcopal Church.
Church rector the Rev. Marquita L. Hutchens said the Episcopal Church won’t back down from its decision. She said the Episcopal Church’s role in the Anglican Communion has long been to edge it toward doing the right and just thing. It was the Episcopal Church that first ordained a female bishop in 1989. In 2006, it first elected a woman to be a primate, or chief bishop, as well.
“The way I see it is, the Episcopal Church is kind of planting seeds of what is good and right, but it takes some time to germinate in other parts of the world,” Hutchens said.
Hutchens praised Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael Curry’s handling of the restrictions. Curry, while standing behind the church’s decision to allow same-sex marriage, didn’t try to condemn the Anglican leaders, either, she said.
So what happens over the next years? Klusmeyer said he would be stunned if the Episcopal Church changed its stance on gay marriage. The African countries likely will not change theirs that quickly either, he said.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has commissioned a task force to foster a conversation on the matter.
“I would hope over the next three years some deep conversations about human rights, the definition of marriage and the love of Jesus all enter into a larger conversation,” Klusmeyer said.
The world will change, but slowly, he said.
Klusmeyer said he doesn’t think the Anglican Communion will ultimately be split because of the issue.
“I believe what I read that the primates said; they want to walk together,” the bishop said. “I believe in three years the conversations will deepen the relationship.”
“We are a very incarnational church,” Klusmeyer said. “We believe in God becoming human and a piece of God being in each of us. When we can recognize that, other differences do diminish.”
Hutchens also thinks the communion’s rift will ultimately be healed.
“I’m trusting in the good and right and fair,” she said. “I believe somehow the Holy Spirit will work it out and we’ll still be a part of the communion.”
Klusmeyer said the news reports about the communion’s restriction distracts the good work that the church has been doing.
“I would say the unfortunate part of the press is that we pick on one or two issues and while they’re important, the reality is the Anglican Communion has done tremendous work to alleviate poverty, raise the status of women and others that have been diminished and we have consistently worked together across the communion to bring the love of Jesus Christ to the world,” Klusmeyer said.