Shoulder-to-shoulder

Here’s the kind of story that rarely gets told in conversations about Anglican unity, though I suspect it’s more common than we might think.

This is a picture of two priests – Len (right) and Rob – in my diocese, Western Massachusetts, at our diocesan convention last weekend. Both are rectors of good-sized churches and well-known around the diocese.

I didn’t know either particularly well but before last weekend. But I knew enough to know they’d probably be on opposite sides of any conversation about sexuality-related issues. Len is the more conservative, Rob the more liberal.

There were two resolutions up for debate at convention, both related to encouraging the blessing of same-gender marriages in the diocese. Several people got up to speak on the resolution, some in favour, others against, all with varying degrees of articulateness and emotion. It was a fine display of the kind of church democracy that is foundational to the governance of the Episcopal Church: a bunch of people, in a hotel ballroom, on a Saturday afternoon, trying to discern what God is calling the church to do.

I noticed Len and Rob standing by the same microphone waiting their turn to speak. It struck me as odd that they would wait together when there was another microphone with a much shorter line.

Len spoke first. He recalled how he had testified at General Convention 2003 against Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire. He mentioned that because the one thing he remembered most of all was how there seemed to develop a de facto split in those waiting to testify. Those in favour at one microphone, those against at another. At our convention, Len said, he wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder (almost literally) with his friend and brother in Christ Rob to show that although they disagreed on the issues in the resolution, it was not going to be an issue that would impede their sharing of Christian unity.

Len went on to explain why he disagreed with the resolution and would vote against it. Then he stepped aside and Rob stepped up. He explained how much he respected, admired, and cared for Len and how they disagreed on the issues under consideration. But nothing, he said, would take away from his respect for Len and his belief that they were equally members of the body of Christ. (I’m paraphrasing from memory here as I wasn’t taking notes.) Then Rob explained why he supported the resolution and would vote for it. Then they both sat down.

I have a whole stock of stories about the church in Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa, Uganda, Ecuador, China, and numerous other places that I tell to Americans about how committed and eager Anglicans in other parts of the world are to share in God’s gift of unity to the worldwide body of Christ. Len and Rob have given me a story I will take with me when I travel again.

Both resolutions, it should be noted, passed. But delegates, mindful of the global reality of the church, also passed a third resolution, that read as follows:

RESOLVED that the 110th Convention of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts affirm its commitment to Christ’s missional prayer “that all may be one…so that the world may believe” (John 17:21); and be it further

RESOLVED that the 110th Convention of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts declare its belief that the church can be an instrument of unity and reconciliation in a fracturing world; and affirm its earnest commitment to deepen our relationships across the Anglican Communion both by seeking to explain to our sister and brother Anglicans around the world our response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our context and by committing to listen and learn from them, all in a spirit of Christ-like humility, vulnerability, and gentleness.

Yes, there are disagreements and we should talk about them, explore them, and question them. But they need not divide.

And yet we persist in thinking otherwise.

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