Last week, a clergy person called into London’s talk radio station, LBC, and asked Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, why the church couldn’t allow priests to follow their own conscience regarding marriage equality.
The Archbishop’s response was to point to the up-tick in violence against the LGBT community in African countries like Nigeria and Uganda, saying, “"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened far, far away in America, and they were attacked by other people because of that, and a lot of them had been killed."
If the Church of England endorsed same sex marriage, he promised, "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic."
I have to admit that I came late to the conversation about the Archbishop’s remarks, which remind me painfully of similar conversations I had as a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where diocesan leadership proved eager to use church leaders in Africa as pawns in western culture wars. I remember hearing from the leadership of the Diocese of Pittsburgh (many of whom are now part of the Church of Nigeria) that the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of a gay bishop would make it hard for the Christians of Africa to withstand the “Muslim invasion”. Christians couldn’t afford to be seen as “soft on homosexuals” or the church would perish. I remember asking, “Since when is the censure, oppression and killing people part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?” I don’t remember receiving an answer. It seems to me that the church is in the greatest danger of perishing if we make intolerance a necessary part of our survival strategy.
I believe the greatest challenge the Church faces in this world is staying on message: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. This is the Christ who said “Love one another as I have loved you,” and inspired Paul’s great revelation that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For me, this is the message that witnesses to the Kingdom of God. The very idea that living into this reality of grace somehow “incites violence” is ridiculous; hatred fear and entitlement incite violence. And these are the very things Jesus opposed.
While there are many things about the Episcopal Church that disappoint me, I have always admired our church’s willingness to stand up for equality. For all our faults, we have tried (sometimes failing miserably) to take that “respecting the dignity of every human being” part of our baptismal covenant seriously. We have affirmed the full humanity of people of color outrageously ordaining black bishops for a white church; we have affirmed the full humanity of women, daring to ordain them, even when the larger communion tells us that we are degrading the office of clergy in doing so. And we boldly affirm the humanity of our LGBT brothers and sisters, acknowledging their love of the Lord and their gifts and service to the Body of Christ. There is no faithful strategy for winning Christians that puts this up for debate. And contrary to the Archbishop’s assertion, I don’t think injustice is overcome by giving up the fight for justice. Jesus calls us to stand for Kingdom justice and radical love.
As one who fully believes in salvation by grace through faith, I’m convinced we cannot do otherwise.