As a Pentecostal-turned-Anglican, with some traditions in between, I’m someone who has lived in many church worlds, and I enjoy building bridges across contexts. But working in an Episcopal context, confirmed in a PEARUSA congregation, and having worked in multiple ACNA settings, I’ve also been in the middle of poignant “leaving or cleaving” denominational questions for the better part of ten years (though not as long as many, if not most, of my readers have).
For the most part, I’ve observed from the eye of the storm, staying on the fringes of disagreements, keeping friends. Only lately, as a sort of Lenten facing-up to myself, have I asked, “What would I do if it came to it?” What would I do if I were a pastor or a parishioner who struggled to find recourse for my convictions in the community or denomination I was currently part of? And I’ve had to admit that, if things get hard enough, after a prolonged season of trying but failing to grow spiritually and serve in a particular environment, at least as an individual congregant, I’m a “leaver.” I deeply understand wanting the manifest signs of the sort of holiness that you’re looking to emulate to show up in the leaders and community who guide, influence, and surround you.
But as a woman in ministry, even as non-ordained, I’ve also been the cause of church controversy myself. I have gotten in trouble for making large donors angry. I have been accused of saying God is a woman, and other silly things. I have palpably felt in a room the danger of simply being myself. I have been on the wrong side of someone else’s “purity politics.” And I’ve been the one who’s gotten very clear signals from leadership: “You don’t fit here.” Or “I don’t know what to do with you.” Or, if we could have all been extremely blunt, perhaps a few times, “Amber, frankly, you scare the shit out of me.”
Reflecting on the “Dear Gay Anglicans” letter, Archbishop Foley Beach’s response, and Archbishop Nudukuba’s words to the ACNA, there’s something about the “race for purity” that, even as a possible “leaver,” disturbs me. There are many disturbing things about this whole exchange, but I would like to focus narrowly on one single aspect. This narrow focus means I won’t try to resolve any of the presenting issues surrounding sexuality, or to address the difference “leaving” makes when forming new churches in addition to breaking away from others. Instead, I simply want to reflect on the power dynamics involved in pursuing a spiritually “pure” community.
Even from my own experience I have known the difference between being the judge of a community and the one in the docks. It’s of course a difference of position. And this difference, and how people navigate it, is a part of purity and its politics I hope Anglicans and Episcopalians would consider carefully as they relate to one another and make decisions concerning where, how, and with whom to worship, teach, and disciple, and whom to employ (or un-employ).
However right or wrong it may be to leave a church as an individual or a beleaguered group, and however right or wrong a particular set of purity criteria may be, purity politics function differently depending on where you stand. Am I part of the majority or the group in charge, or am I disenfranchised or in the minority? How much power do I have? If not much power, then if I leave, I leave; and it may be painful, for me and for the community I draw away from, but unless I am a major sustaining donor, my following my conscience likely puts me in a position of real vulnerability. I probably don’t have the money, influence, or resources on my side to recover quickly. It’s my risk. If, on the other hand, I have a lot of power, or more power, or the most, then I can’t leave; it’s my own house I’m sweeping; in order to stay pure, I have to push others out. I have to make others vulnerable, put others out of a job, out of a community.
And so I seriously, seriously, wonder, though I have a great deal of sympathy for the ACNA and other “break-off” groups and their reasons for existing, if it is appropriate for any large organization, or church, or powerful person, to preserve purity in the same way an individual might: by breaking off or pushing away from the problematic part. When you’re small, you get pushed; when you’re bigger, you do the pushing. And how you navigate nourishing or preserving the spiritual purity or obedience of a community has got to look very different, has got to ask for a different kind of moral responsibility – doesn’t it? – from the seat of power than it does from the back door.
Because surely, if I am in the position of power, and if I am relatively secure in it, I should be, for one thing, in a position less conducive to reactivity or fear, and more conducive to conversation, persuasion, listening, and patience. Instead of kicking, pushing, or subtly pressuring out, I can instead enfold, literally “patronize” the ones I see as problematic, because I am the patron, the one whose house it is, the host at the table. I have time to assess and discern my own motivations and actions, as well as those of the offending parties. I need be in no rush.
I’d like to make one more important distinction here:
I do not say there are never moments when a guest should be un-invited. There are moments, in Jesus’ parables, as well as in life before our eyes, in which people practically un-invite themselves. They’re at the party, but not dressed for the party. They’re not even trying. They make their intention not to participate, and probably to spoil the party for others, very clear. And in that case, perhaps they should leave of their own accord, but for some bad reason they stick around.
Those who are in power have the responsibility to engage in careful discernment, rather than rushing to judgment. In some cases, a disinvitation indeed may be needed. In others, though, a process of dialogue can lead to a better understanding and mutual flourishing. And in some cases, it may be some time before we can see clearly which of the two it is that we’re dealing with.
Amber D. Noel is associate editor of The Living Church and associate director of the Living Church Institute.