For more than a decade, there has been a growing schism within the Anglican Church, the international body that grew out of the Church of England, established by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. With 85 million members spread across 165 countries, it is the third largest Christian denomination in the world. Over the summer, the United States branch of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, voted to adopt a new policy allowing clergy to perform same-sex marriages. While celebrated by LGBT activists and allies, the move enraged more conservative elements of the international religious organization. At a recent meeting of the archbishops in Canterbury, England, a majority voted to discipline the United States Episcopal Church, suspending it for a period of three years.
The move by the Anglican leadership is the climax of more than a decade of inner turmoil—first sparked when the Episcopal Church elected an openly gay bishop in 2003—and is actually less severe than some would have had it. The New York Times reports that Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Uganda walked out of a meeting earlier this week after his proposal that the United States and Canada (Canada has allowed some clergy to perform same-sex marriages, albeit without a formal adoption of such a policy) repent and "voluntarily" withdraw from the Anglican Communion failed to gain supporters.
The place of LGBT people within the church has become a thorn in the side of Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury in particular. The most senior archbishop in Anglicanism, he is tasked with maintaining unity among a vast network of believers without possessing the power to dictate policy for provinces outside of England. Welby felt the strain acutely throughout the process of adopting marriage equality in England and Wales in 2013, fighting hard and successfully for the Church of England to remain exempt from the compulsion to perform same-sex marriages, and maintaining his support for "traditional" marriage. Of course, his attitude towards LGBT individuals is far more liberal than that held by bishops and archbishops in places like Africa and Asia, whose hardline stances prove distasteful in more tolerant parts of the world.
In response to the decision, Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, lamented that "this decision will bring real pain" to Episcopalians, especially LGBT congregants. According to Episcopal News Service, he went on to say:
“For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain.”
According to the New York Times, the sanctions will be as followed:
"For the next three years, the Episcopal leaders will not be allowed to represent the Anglican Communion at meetings with other churches or other faiths, will not be appointed or elected to internal committees and will not be allowed to participate in decisions in the Anglican Communion 'relating to doctrine or polity.'”
The length of the suspension is based on the timing of the next general convention of the Episcopal Church. In three years, the body will meet next, thereby making it the first time the Episcopal Church could reconsider its stance on marriage equality.
Photo via Wikipedia/Church of St. John the Devine