Why we should care about the 2016 Primates meeting in Canterbury

As a new Episcopal priest, I have more reason than most and less reason than some to care deeply about what happens at the “gathering” of Primates in Canterbury Cathedral this week. Many people far more experienced than I have given themselves to the hard work of communion building and the harder work of communion maintaining throughout their lives. They have more skin in the game, as it were, than I do. But also, most Episcopalians probably don’t even know the meeting is going on or why they should care about it.

In my adult life the Anglican Communion has been a sight of conflict, embarrassment, and frustrating myopia. For the past thirteen years all it ever seems to be talking about is homosexuality and its place within the church. I do not mean to discount the very intense and important debates about how we use Scripture, Tradition, and Reason to ground our faith, living as we do in such varied cultural contexts across the Communion. But while we have been pulling apart, the world has been falling apart and our inability to get past this single issue has allowed other issues to go unaddressed by our Church writ large. Poverty, war, environmental disaster, gender based violence, illness, and more are eating away at the chance for all people to lead healthy, productive lives in peace and to the glory of God. And we, as a communion of Christ followers, have been unable to speak with any unanimity and force to these issues because we are stuck debating godly sexual morality.

As an Episcopalian in the United States, it can often feel as though the Communion is holding us back from bringing Christ’s love into the broken places of our world. It would be easier, it often seems, to let the schismatics go their separate ways. Many of them sound like bigots to our ears anyway. And in the meantime we, and those who agree with us, can get on with the hard but necessary work of reconciling the world to God.

I think that would be a mistake though. This coming Sunday we will be reading a passage from 1 Corinthians 12 which begins St. Paul’s extended meditation on the “varied gifts of the Spirit” and his “many members, one body” metaphor. From the foundation of the church there has been disagreement, to pretend otherwise is just that, pretending. But what Paul urges, and what the Church has long urged is unification despite a lack of uniformity. One body. Many members.

But why? Ostensibly it is because the body depends on or gains something from the other members (“if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?”) but what do I get from a body part that says I should not be a part of the body? What could I gain from a foot that decides it no longer wants to be a part of this body? What concern is that to me? And what concern is that to most Episcopalians who just want to meet God in worship and community and live a good, righteous life? Well as a Christian, and a member of the body of Christ, I have to trust God knows more than I do about this, and has called us together for the mutual benefit of the other even if that benefit is simply learning how to live and work and pray with someone with whom you have passionate disagreements. This is not a new argument for staying “in Communion” and while it hasn’t been terribly effective of late, that does not mean we should discount it.

But above all, for me, new to the sacred order of priests in this Church and happy to be here, the reason a split in the Communion (which would require far more than just a walk out by some ornery primates at Canterbury by the way) would be such a “failure” for the Church (to borrow Archbishop Welby’s language) is that it would show us just how far we have to go for the Kingdom of God to be on earth as it is in heaven. The church is the body of Christ, and that body, while pierced and wounded, is one, and it is the place where heaven and earth can meet. If we, as Christians, are committed to making/allowing/inspiring (pick your verb) God’s kingdom to come on earth as in Heaven, as we pray every day, multiple times a day, then we are looking for a single Kingdom, with many members. If this prayed for reality is ever to be, my hope is that it will start with the Church. We must model for the rest of the world what the Kingdom of God looks like. And if all the world sees when it looks at us is squabbling, walking out, and divisiveness, then, well, we’re not going to do much by way of inspiring all people to live lives of faith, hope and love for Jesus. So for that reason, and for many others, I pray that this week in Canterbury is one where the Body of Christ is raised in glory, not where it is crucified.