THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 178
How do you get out of a big tent?
What is happening in America and Canada must have been part of the possible scenario that the Archbishop of Canterbury talked of several years ago - when he said that the prospects of schism were too horrible to contemplate! Well, first it happened in the United States, and now it is happening in Canada. If you are keen for the accurate up-to-date information I suggest you Google the Canadian Churches (Anglican Journal) to which I owe my information, otherwise I will do my best to give the facts of the case!
In brief, several clergy in the New Westminster diocese decided to leave the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) over theological disagreements (including same-sex blessings) and were in due course requested to leave their parishes. Nothing remarkable in that, these days! Some of their parishioners voted to also leave the main church and to join the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Archbishop Rowan Williams only recognises the one Anglican church in Canada - the ACC.
The question is whether the outgoing congregation and clergy can take the assets - property and resources - with them when they go.
As I see it, the key issue being discussed, therefore, is the manner in which they departed the ACC. If they are deemed to have simply departed, then they will not be able to claim the assets. But if the Judge decides that they did not depart but divided - that is, that they have not left the ACC but merely split off because they did not agree with something, and that they remain Anglicans - then they have more chance of retaining the assets of the churches they are leaving.
So far so good - but now it gets more complicated! The lawyers for those who are departing argued that the Solemn Declaration of 1893, found in the Book of Common Prayer, creates a trust. The lawyer for the defendant - the ACC - argued, instead, that the structure of the diocese and the national church were sufficient to govern church affairs. He also argued that even if a trust were created by the Solemn Declaration, that trust would only be violated if the diocese of the ACC ignored ’very fundamental doctrines and tenets’ of the church. He contended that the non-sanctity of same-sex relationships were plainly and obviously not fundamental to the Anglican Church of Canada. He argued that Anglicanism is a ‘big tent’ and encompassed a wide diversity of beliefs.
In effect the lawyer for the diocese was saying that same-sex relationships can be ‘of God’ and are therefore well within the Anglican ‘tent’.
Other issues were raised - there was a bequest that, with interest, now totalled over $2.2million. Was that left to the church or to the people at the church, people known to the benefactor?
Naturally, the lawyer for the plaintiff - the breakaway parishioners and clergy - wanted to suggest to the Court that it should avoid tangling with the theological issues - much easier to just decide that it was a division and not a departure - and so pass the property to those who left the ACC.
The decision of the Court could take months!
So here we have again the sordid picture of Christians fighting each other in court for possession of buildings and money. This, of course, is in direct contravention of St Paul in second Corinthians (chapter six) where he specifically tells them that they should not go to court with disputes against each other - far better to find a trusted independent Christian of the church to decide for them (verse one). Why do you go to outside judges who are not respected by the church ? (verse four).
It has always struck me as contrary for evangelicals to rely on texts from the bible regarding homosexuality - but to ignore texts from the bible about settling their differences within the church without recourse to outside judges. If anything can be called ‘cherry-picking’ surely this is it?
Not much hope of settling the dispute within church circles in these cases! For one thing the amounts involved are often quite large. Secondly, a degree of - what can we say? - bad feeling is probably present at least in some of those battling it out in the courts. Thirdly, the original church - the ACC in this case - would have to start all over again to build a congregation and buy a church building if they just let the assets be taken by those who were leaving. Fourthly, there will be in most cases some parishioners who do not want to move with those who are leaving - and it is their church as much as anyone’s!
This must have been the nightmare scenario that the Archbishop of Canterbury envisaged some years ago. So far the schism has taken effect in this form (a legal battle) in both the United States (where there is a gay bishop) and in Canada (where there have been gay blessings) but not anywhere else. Might such disputes spread like an infectious plague?
It seems to me that there are two main factors bearing on that possibility. The first is that there might be moves in some churches towards being more accepting of gay people - resulting in gay blessings or gay clergy and bishops. The second is that the reverse might happen - those churches in the Anglican Communion that are against homosexuality (thinking it sinful, evil or sick) might take steps against those existing churches that accept gay people - certainly the ones with gay clergy.
The first factor- that some churches might move towards a greater acceptance of gay Christians - is of course already happening in America and Canada. A lot will depend on decisions in those churches later this year. But what about other churches in the Anglican Communion?
If other churches - for example in the British Isles - were to move that way then this might trigger a similar type of schism here - physical departure of some church members. Then of course it would be possible for us to see litigation similar to that in countries like the United States and Canada.
The second factor - where those churches that are gay-averse become more militant about the other churches in the Anglican Communion being gay-accepting - is also possible. They have declared complete refutation of any acceptance of homosexuality. There seems to be very little room, if any, for change in their position on the matter! Their opposition could be triggered by the situation in the United States or Canada moving in a direction that they disagree with.
So there could be nightmares ahead - and we could see litigation with some Christians in some congregations wanting to leave the church and join some other outfit. It may never happen - on the other hand it may be just around the corner!
In all of this we have to retain a sense of proportion by remembering that in Europe - and in our own country - gay people are more and more accepted. I think it is true to say that, generally, the younger half of the population accept gay people as a simple fact of life. By and large they see no problem. They accept that some people have a sexual orientation that directs them to their same sex. Why not accept it?
Not only are populations accepting the change in attitude towards gay people - but, of course, laws are being changed too! Anti-gay actions are now unlawful in some countries. This is not before time because there are people in all countries - often young and poorly educated and often unemployed - who search out gay people in order to terrorize and attack them. It is happening all the time - even in this country. It happens alongside indiscriminate knife crime and general muggings.
In some other countries the position is much worse. In some African countries, for example, homosexuals are at risk of serious attack - and often in danger for their life. There is also severe penalties - even death sometimes - for gay people who are caught in some Middle Eastern countries.
So this is no time to be complacent. To be gay has consequences in any country - no matter how open and accepting it is. But thankfully most Christians believe that God accepts and loves gay people exactly as He accepts and loves heterosexual people.
However there is one final thought I want to leave with you. It concerns the steady progress of humankind in understanding sexuality and coming to a sensible and Christian attitude towards sexual morality. As we have understood human sexuality better we have adjusted to an acceptance of homosexuality as something that is not perverse, evil, sick or demonic. Instead, it is becoming more and more accepted that two men (or two women) may love each other and want to commit the rest of their lives to each other. In these circumstances the people who surround our churches - the non Christians - are asking why the church shuts these people out. Doesn’t God love them too? Is not their love real? Is not such a partnership a wonderful thing - as wonderful as a man and a woman making the same commitments to each other? Does God distinguish against gay people in this respect?
Our church has to find an answer these questions. It is not sufficient to give the tired old answers that have existed for centuries. Today we are in an era of new knowledge and understanding. Over the last few hundred years the church has changed enormously on all sorts of matters - not least, for example, on contraception. Why this hang up about homosexuals? This honest enquiry should lead us to want to welcome gay people into our churches for gay blessings, for example. It is not marriage, it is a partnership.
The churches are not going to be able to keep plugging the holes in the dam for ever. Sooner or later we are all going to have to face reality and accept gay people into the church on an equal footing. If we think we can temporise for ever - until churches in far off places catch up with the new insight - we are mistaken! And certainly untold harm is being done meantime to many, many people - both to gay people and to those outside the churches who criticise them for their anti-gay stance.
I, for one, cannot stand idly by while people are hurt just so that we maintain a ‘unity’ with gay-averse churches - which actually is a false unity, for we are deeply divided from them. The clock is ticking, and we all need to be aware of the damage being wrought by our present attitude. Our Anglican Church is a big tent - lets have done with our condemnation of gay people and our hesitancy about accepting them fully.