Even Our Compassion Has Been Colonized

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The Anglican Communion will break your heart if you let it. And it seems these days that you have to let it or leave it, and I choose the former. I love belonging to a global communion of faithful people whose perspectives broaden and deepen my own, whose faith inspires and challenges me, and with whom I can work to make our world a little bit more like God wants it to be.

There are days, however, when our roots seem to run so deeply in the soil of colonialism that we will never outgrow it. There are days on which even our capacity to care for one another has been colonized. Today was one of those days.

This morning, Bishop Josiah Fearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, gave this address to the 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council now gathered in Lusaka, Zambia. Among the first topics he addressed was the provisions the Episcopal Church is making for leaders who do not agree with the broader church’s decision to celebrate same-sex marriages. Bishop Fearon meant to praise us, it seems, and to demonstrate to the wider communion that Episcopalians are capable of working together despite deep theological differences. But his speech revealed how deeply suspicious the communion remains of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Anglicans, and how eager it is to treat as victims those who have lost nothing more than the capacity they once had to oppress.

For more than a decade, the Anglican Communion has labored to placate the consciences of theologically conservative North American bishops, men who make a comfortable living on their way to generous pensions. Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Communion send emissaries. Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Communion extend invitations to private meetings. Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Communion allow these bishops to speak to the Primates Meeting about the sins of their church and its leaders. The bishops remain disgruntled, and their needs remain uppermost in the communion’s mind.

Compare this treatment to that of Anglicans in other provinces whose liberty and livelihoods are in daily jeopardy because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or are supportive of LGBT people. You won’t find a word about LGBT Anglicans who live at risk and whose churches will not help them in Bishop Fearon’s speech—indeed, he dismissed young African Anglican protestors who assembled outside Canterbury Cathedral in January as mere children who had lived too long away from home to be taken seriously. So permit me a paragraph to tell you about the ones I know.

I have an Anglican friend in Kenya who aspires to study for the priesthood. She sent me photographs on Facebook recently of the jail cell in which she was being held overnight for the crime of sitting at a table in a bar with other women. It was her second arrest for the same offense. I have another Anglican friend in an African country I won’t name who can’t find work, despite being a brilliant teacher and writer, because he advocates greater tolerance for LGBT people whom his government disdains. He and his family live perpetually on the edge of economic disaster. And I have a third friend, a priest in yet another African country, who had his stipend cut for speaking on behalf of LGBT people and was thus not able to afford his children’s school fees and could not buy fertilizer for the garden plot on which he and his family were partially dependent for food.

When I think about people who most need the spiritual and material support a worldwide body of Christians such as the Anglican Communion can offer, when I meditate on people who need protection, who need to be reassured that they are not alone, I don’t immediately focus on highly-educated, economically secure men with significant ecclesiastical power. Yet the communion continues to lavish attention on this group, and the fact that the Episcopal Church is making accommodations for them is held out as evidence that Anglicans can remain in good relationships “across our differences.”

But we are not talking about the right kinds of differences. When we speak of LGBT issues in the Anglican context, there are two kinds of people: Those who are in danger for losing their lives, liberties and livelihoods, and those who are not. And I vacillate between rage and despair over the fact that this latter group remains at the center of our conversation, while the former remains on the margins.

Somehow, the Anglican Communion has argued itself to a place in which theologically conservative westerners are perched at the top of the list of people whose needs must be met, while those who suffer real consequences for attempting to live out their beliefs can be safely belittled or ignored. We have taken the values of the gospel and stood them on their heads.