Division, Unity, and a Changing Understanding of Marriage
This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
I’m aware, sometimes, that I give the impression that my own church, The Episcopal Church, is a place of perfect peace, love, and joy—celebrating the full inclusion of all the baptized, including our LGBTQIA+ members as we live in beautiful unity. And while it is true that the Episcopal Church, as a whole, is fully affirming, there are still some bishops and parishes and members disagree with that stance. Division is just as real in our church as it is in any church.
Indeed, some days division in Christianity seems to be getting worse, the polemic more strident. Right here in Grand Haven, some of our Reformed Churches have felt the need to exit their denomination over views on human sexuality.
So, this week, I’d like to break some myths I think that exist about division in the Body of Christ, and I’d like to use the painful history (and current reality) of my own church as an example.
As a member of The Episcopal Church, that means I am a part of the global Anglican Communion. We are actually the third largest Christian communion (after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches), with roughly 85 million members spread across a fellowship of 38 independent provinces. Our roots come from the Church of England, with many of our independent national churches (including the Episcopal Church in the United States) being formerly colonies of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual leader of the Communion, but since each province is independent and autonomous, that means he doesn’t tell us what to do. We listen to him, but in the end, we make the decisions we believe the Holy Spirit is calling us to.
I give you this brief historical background because right now almost all of the bishops of the Anglican Communion are gathered at Lambeth Palace in England for the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference. I say “almost all” because though our Communion has 880 some bishops, only about 650 are attending the Conference this year. Some are not there due to COVID concerns or difficulty getting a VISA to travel, but most who are not there are making that decision because of divisions in our Communion that still persist over issues of human sexuality.
The provinces of Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda are all boycotting the Conference in objection to the decisions my church in the United States has made by consecrating partnered gay bishops and embracing sacramental marriage equality. They are particularly opposed to the fact that four of our bishops who are married and gay or lesbian were invited to attend.
On the other side, however, the invitation to our married gay and lesbian bishops, came with restrictions because their spouses were specifically not invited to come, something that caused significant frustration among many of our bishops—to the point that some of our bishops, including my own bishop, the Rt. Rev. Prince Singh here in Western Michigan, refused to attend the Conference as well in protest to the discriminatory invitations issued to our married gay or lesbian bishops.
But even among those gathered, the divisions are playing out as many bishops are now refusing to receive communion since there are openly gay bishops in the worship service… And round and round the objections and boycotts and refusals to attend go. The Body of Christ becoming more and more wounded with each inflicted division.
Each generation has their own “church-dividing issues,” controversies or questions about theology or discipline which people believe are so significant you cannot be in relationship with those who disagree.
When I was growing up, it was questions like marriage after divorce. Interestingly enough, most Christian churches today permit marriage after divorce (despite what Jesus’ explicit prohibition). I agree with that permission, of course, believing that grace should give people a second chance at love and life after the pain of divorce, certain that if you read Jesus’ words in their historical context, the more traditional view cannot stand.
But back then churches split over the issue, confident that those who disagreed, who argued for something new, were deviating from a core teaching of the church.
One of the first things I learned when I was active in the ecumenical movement, serving in the National Council of Churches, is that our unity in Christ is a gift—it’s never something we can bring about on our own. It is a gift, a unity that is hidden with God in Christ. And that we, as Christians, should be seeking to make that unity a more manifest reality in the world.
And I hope that on the questions of our own time, particularly questions of sexuality and gender, churches can get to a place where those who have embraced a more progressive view can have room. I particularly hope for this because I know so many Christians whose minds on this question were changed from their experience with gay and lesbian Christians. Until you’ve had the experience of real relationships with LGBTQIA+ Christians, it’s hard to see that there might be a different perspective.
In the meantime, while we work and wait (and pray) for greater unity in the church, I hope you can find room to be curious in your own life, to resist the impulse to separate and divide. And above all, I hope we all remember that none of us are saved by our perfect beliefs, but by the grace of a God who loves us all and welcomes all of us home.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.