The scent of sweetgrass still wafting through the air, the former head of the Anglican Church Of Canada, Archbishop Michael Peers, was processed down the centre aisle of St John’s Church on Elgin Street, following three female drummers from the Wabano Centre. Archbishop Peers was enrobed in the button blanket given to him by the Nishga’a First Nation of the Pacific Coast.
It was an extraordinary gesture to honour an extraordinary man. Under his leadership in the year 2001, the Anglican Church Of Canada did something almost unheard of among Christian churches. It admitted it had been wrong. Peers and the Anglican Church apologized to Canada’s aboriginal peoples for years of abuse, humiliation and mistreatment.
This apology caused consternation among some in the church. The Anglican Church was then on the hook in a number of multi-million-dollar lawsuits for damages suffered by aboriginals at the residential schools the church had run. Several dioceses were facing bankruptcy. At the time, Peers explained that the treasure of the church was not its money, but its people and its principles. If it abandoned them, it would be truly and morally bankrupt, without credibility.
Peers was in town to lead off The Whole Message conference Apr 13 and 14. The 150 people gathered at St John’s Church from eight different dioceses challenged the Anglican Church to apologize to Canada’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people for the abuse they have suffered. The church had confronted its tradition of racism by reforming its relationship with aboriginals. It had confronted its tradition of misogyny by opening all positions within the church for women. Now is the time for the church to confront its tradition of homophobia.
“This is a defining moment for the Church,” said professor John Thorp of Huron Theological College during the closing plenary discussion. “Let us not be fearful, but proceed to practice radical welcoming!”
Earlier in the day, retired Connecticut Bishop Arthur Walmsley explained how it is that the church has come to this defining moment. The Episcopal Church of the United States (the US branch of Anglicanism) has been in turmoil, he noted, since the beginning of the civil rights movement in the early 1950s. Upsetting many Christian conservatives, the Episcopal Church leadership denounced racism and promoted integration and other liberal policies.
Bishop Walmsley recounted how, in 1982, an organization called the Institute For Religion And Democracy was created, largely to counter the liberal Protestant denominations’ attacks on Ronald Reagan’s foreign policies (and specifically the covert military campaigns in Central America). The IRD and its benefactors have in turn supported a handful of conservative US bishops who have strategy to get the Episcopal Church kicked out of the international Anglican family and a new, conservative Anglican Church Of America created in its place.
In a campaign worthy of Republican Party strategist Karl Rove, they have aligned themselves with one of the most overtly homophobic clerics of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Peter Jasper Akinola, who is head of the Church of Nigeria. Akinola infamously last year supported anti-gay legislation so draconian that even the government of George W Bush condemned it this year as an assault on fundamental human rights.
In June, all eyes in the Anglican Church, in Canada and worldwide, will be on Winnipeg, as elected representatives gather for the triennial meeting of General Synod, the governing body of the Anglican Church of Canada. At least three motions will deal with same-sex relationships. They are already hotly contested.
“We need to be as wise as serpents,” said Terry Finlay, the retired archbishop of Ontario, during the closing plenary. “Some people have legitimate disagreements with us. Others are out to destroy the church.”
Conference participants responded to the call. “End the hypocrisy,” suggested one, continuing, “Tell the story of what really happens, in the church and in our lives. Break the silence!”
It will, indeed, be a defining moment for the Church. Will it confront the blatant homophobia that its most conservative members are using as a wedge issue to mask their own fears about multiculturalism, feminism, and post-modernism? Will it sacrifice truth in favour of tradition?
This is not just about gays and lesbians within and outside of the church. If it does not confront this homophobic hysteria, the very credibility of the Anglican Church will be in question. If it sacrifices its people and its principles out of fear of the future, it will lose anything it might claim as spiritual authority. This is the challenge this Ottawa conference has put to the church.