“church-tics” – a personal reflection on Canterbury tales

“Church-tics.” My mother’s term. Uttered infrequently, for she disdained unpleasantness, and when spoken, always accompanied by her tight-lipped dismay.

“Church-tics.” Her word to describe her perception of the intrusion of politics into church life. When the Vestry, our congregation’s decision making body, sought to remove our priest for reasons she viewed as individual disaffections rather than involving non-performance or violation of ecclesiastical canon, she sighed, “church-tics.” When our bishop, taking a public stand for civil rights joined the local NAACP branch to protest the lack of job opportunities for black and poor folk (which my mother considered a faithful expression of gospel justice), incited criticism that he was “mixing religion and politics,” she frowned, “church-tics.”

My mother loved the Lord and the church. She led me, through the example of her quiet, resolute devotion in thought, speech, and deed to follow Jesus as a living Lord, not some legendary figure of honored memory. In the same way, she taught me about being a member of the church. (My mother didn’t know Greek, but she embodied the meaning of ekklesia, a word often translated “church”, meaning “a people called out” from the world by God to do God’s will.)

She also possessed a keen sense of politics, at its best (from the Greek, polis, city, thus concerning the art of living in community) and at its worst, meaning the manipulative imposition of one person’s or party’s will on another. It is this latter sense, when intruding into church life, that compelled her invention of the term, “church-tics.”

January 11-15, the primates, the senior bishops of the global 80-million member Anglican Communion’s 38 provincial or national church bodies (one being the American Episcopal Church), gathered at Canterbury, England. One of many subjects on the agenda was the conflict, largely between liberal Western and conservative Southern Hemispheres, in biblical and theological interpretation concerning human sexuality. Whilst pledging “to walk together,” that is, to refrain from renouncing fellowship and fracturing the Communion, the majority of the primates voted to suspend the American Episcopal Church from active participation in the life and labor of the global body. This three-year suspension, in part, is intended to encourage and allow the American church to repent of its actions in redefining the doctrine of marriage to sanctify same-sex relationships.

As I reflect on this action, I make a number of confessions, that is, speaking the truths of my heart.

First, I confess that the above paragraph concerning the meeting of the primates and the action relative to the American Episcopal Church is condensed and superficial. Much more would I need to write to capture and convey the deeply varied and highly nuanced positions of all involved.

Nevertheless, second, I confess that I daily labor (struggle) to be clear about what I think and feel, what I believe and how I behave and that I seek to be open to listening and learning the truths of others, even and especially when I disagree.

Third, I confess that I believe Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross of his crucifixion in loving acceptance of all people, that Jesus, to paraphrase the hymn, welcomes us all “just as we are without one plea”, and that Jesus’ salvific death and resurrection honor (that is, do not deny) who we are as God has made us in our ethnic and racial, genderal and sexual, familial and cultural identities.

Four, for those who believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality (I also recall that slavery was once held to be biblically-justifiable, indeed, commanded), I confess that I regard it as a sincerely held belief, yet my biblical interpretation and theological understanding call me to esteem who we are as God has made us and that I believe sexual orientation is an integral aspect of human creation.

Five, I confess that I cannot divorce from my thinking about what has transpired in Canterbury the practical realization that size matters. In the past 40 years, the numbers of Western Anglicans/Episcopalians have declined whilst the Southern Hemispheric churches, particularly those in Africa, have grown exponentially. With swift and substantial increases in membership, African primates bear more influence theologically and politically.

Six, I, as an African American, confess my ambivalence. Knowing the experience of powerlessness in the face of the scarcity of opportunity, I can celebrate when the proverbial tables are turned. Still, I also mark and lament when formerly subjected folk act in ways that I perceive as projecting, imposing their positions on others.

As I reflect on this action of the Anglican primates in Canterbury, I don’t know what my mother would say, but I, sadly, say, “church-tics.”