Last December, when several churches in Virginia announced their break from the U.S. Episcopal Church to accept the authority of the vehemently anti-gay Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola, leader of the 77 million member province of Nigeria, I wrote a piece for Slate arguing that such a split would make the Episcopal Church stronger. In response, I received the usual spate of Christian hate mail. But I also got several messages from people from those churches grieving the impact that decision would have on their families over the holidays. "Why did they have to do this right before Christmas?" asked one. "My family has belonged to Falls Church for years, but this is the first Christmas we won't be attending services together," opined another, before heading home for the holidays.
As has been noted plenty of times before, the decision these churches made to leave the Episcopal Church because of its gay-friendly leanings is monumental, involving complex property disputes, legal wrangling, and the possible - probable - loss of dearly loved church buildings. That's not to mention the risks that come with aligning with an erratic bishop with a dubious human rights record from a country with problems that these Virginians probably can't begin to fathom - problems that have and will continue to have an enormous impact on the church and society in Nigeria.
In showing their willingness to take on such risks, the people in these parishes are making a strong statement against friends, acquaintances, and members of their own families who are gay or at least sympathize with gay people - sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings. Through those emails last December, I got but a glimpse of the sadness and alienation that must have resulted in many homes.
Those missives came to mind recently when I read in last Saturday's The New York Times that Peter Akinola is coming to the U.S. later this week to install those bishops. Looks like he's just in time to wreck some summer family reunions, I thought to myself, and perhaps he'll come armed with a passage from Scripture: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." It would certainly suit the occasion, though I must say it seems a little strange that this text is so fitting in the family-values Bible belt.
In my Hudson Valley church, on the contrary, we prefer a different passage from Scripture: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" At our Christmas service, a row of fully decked-out cadets from nearby West Point worshipped alongside an ardent pacifist, a gay couple exchanged the peace with a homophobe, and I communed an older woman who doesn't think I, a woman priest, should even be there.
Since I doubt Peter Akinola would show any interest in attending family gatherings like ours, we at St. Nicholas-on-the-Hudson look forward to a peaceable, warm, and family-friendly summer ahead.