Although I have mostly been a student these last few weeks, I stepped into the role of teacher on Thursday morning. The subject? The Episcopal Church. I prepared by gathering data to compare the U.S.-based church and the Episcopal Church of Sudan – 110 dioceses vs. 31; ~2.7 million members vs. ~4 to 5 million – but I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew one topic would dominate the time.
I began by asking the students what they knew about my church. Immediately, that topic came out – “you have homosexual bishops.”
What followed was a really wonderful conversation over two hours about what unites the two churches and what divides us. We talked about scripture, tradition, and reason; the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral; how bishops are elected in the U.S. and in Sudan; and our experience of being students together over the past few weeks. We talked about the Archbishop of Canterbury and the extent of the Anglican Communion.
One thing that the students highlighted is that the consecration of a gay bishop in one part of the Anglican Communion has a negative impact on them. They told me stories of times when they had been mocked for belonging to “the gay church” and talked about the impact it has on ecumenical and inter-faith relations. This has also been mentioned by Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul in his pastoral letters. And yet in my experience we almost never talk about it in the U.S.-based church.
I won’t re-hash our entire conversation here because it was long and involved. I will say, however, that it was a very high-level conversation. We were disagreeing on a wide range of questions and talking about a huge number of issues – whether you can follow reason too far at the expense of scripture; what the proper relationship is between culture and scripture; what love is; what God intends for our relationships; the difference between unity and unanimity; and on and on. I stressed that I wasn’t out to change anyone’s mind but to explain how the U.S.-based church had reached these decisions.
Questions were asked and points were made in a way that showed me the students still liked me and respected me. But they were also very pointed and direct. It was also a conversation that was entirely free of polemic and posturing, which I can’t say about similar conversations I’ve been engaged in elsewhere.
I repeated the session with another group of students on Friday afternoon. At one point, one student asked, “So what’s the solution?” I definitely didn’t know the answer to that one. But I did say that the current crop of Anglican leaders won’t be around forever and that some of the future leaders of the Anglican Communion are at this college and it will be up to them/us to figure out what that solution is.
On Thursday night, after compline, one of the students said he was going to the local store to get a (non-alcoholic) drink and offered to get me one. When he came back, we sat around in his room and he had more questions for me about the Episcopal Church. It felt like such a stereotypical college experience – staying up late, drinking, and talking about “deep” and “important” issues. In keeping with that stereotype, the evening came to an abrupt end when he realized he had a presentation the next day and hadn’t read the book yet.
As I reflect on these conversations, I consider them to be successful in that Anglicans were able to honestly exchange opinions and disagree but still pray together and be in relationship together. I don’t think these classes have damaged my relationships with anyone. In fact, I sense that they have strengthened relationships.
And I don’t think I would have had this kind of success had I showed up and started talking about gay bishops on day one. Instead, I had to spend time over a few weeks becoming a known quantity by eating, living, and praying with them. Then they were able to trust me and truly listen to what I had to stay, even if they then disagreed with it. It all left me confirmed in my belief about the importance of relationships and incarnational ministry, about which I have written plenty in the past and will not repeat here.
As if in confirmation of my thoughts, one student offered up this prayer at a recent compline service.
We give thanks for our brother Jesse who has come all the way from the U.S. We know that we don’t agree on everything but we see him sharing our burdens and hardships of this uncomfortable place and we know he is one of us. We pray that when he goes back he will remember this time in a different place as a blessing.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. And you can be sure I will remember it as a blessing.