By John Tompkins

The worldwide Anglican Communion has sanctioned the Episcopal Church in the United States because of its more liberal stances regarding homosexuality.

In a meeting of archbishops from around the globe, held in London a few weeks ago, Anglican leaders announced that the Episcopal Church will not be allowed to vote in decision-making commissions for the next three years and can no longer take part in ecumenical councils.

R.E. Lee Memorial is one of a number of other churches in the Rockbridge area that recognizes same-sex marriage. (Photo by John Tompkins)

But according to the Rev. David Cox, the former rector of Lexington’s R.E. Lee Memorial Church, this is a very light punishment that will have little practical impact.

“We got slapped on the wrist with a wet noodle…it really doesn’t affect day to day operations at all,” said Cox, who now serves as a priest associate at the parish. “What it said was that there are different groups, and the Americans cannot participate. They can sit in on [the commissions], but they can’t vote.”

Deep disagreements over acceptance of gays have plagued the worldwide Anglican community for some time, especially since the U.S. Episcopal Church approved its first openly gay bishop in 2003 and began allowing gay marriage ceremonies within the church last year.

According to Cox, the division between liberal and conservative Episcopalians came to a head locally in the early 1980s, when some conservative parishioners broke from R.E. Lee Memorial to found St. Paul’s Anglican Church, also located in Lexington.

The Rev. Canon Wallace Shields, one of the leaders of St. Paul’s, said that while he is sorry about some of the divisions affecting the Episcopal Church, he and his parish have more traditional views on topics, such as marriage.

“We believe marriage is a union between two people of the opposite sex,” Shields said.

R.E. Lee Memorial stands with a number of other area churches, including Lexington Presbyterian Church and the Rockbridge Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, in allowing same-sex marriages.

The Episcopal Church in the U.S. has faced stiff resistance from more conservative churches in the global Anglican community, especially in Africa, which has a booming Anglican population.

In a statement released after its meeting in London in early January, the Anglican Communion referred to the Episcopal Church’s stances on marriage equality as “a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces.”

Cox said that the communion’s decision has more of a symbolic impact on the Episcopal Church here in America, and the global Anglican community as a whole.

“It also symbolizes a shift, a major division between the more developed world, the more culturally progressive areas, and the [less developed] more conservative,” Cox said. “Anglicanism has never been uniform, but there’s been a certain cohesion, and what this does is to symbolize a fundamentally different attitude to what it means to be the Church, and specifically the Anglican Communion.”

According to Cox, only the future will tell if this rift in the Anglican Church will fundamentally separate liberal from conservative societies around the globe.

He said one possible solution in the coming years will be for more progressive Anglican leaders in countries like South Africa to try to influence their conservative counterparts, and disseminate new perspectives among followers in Africa and other culturally traditional areas of the world.

But he’s still not optimistic.

“I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Cox said. “But I’m a person of hope.”

The annual council of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia will convene this weekend in Roanoke to discuss, among other things, the church’s response to the sanctions.

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