(RNS) — The past month we’ve seen multiple assessments of the reign of Pope Francis, whose papacy began a decade ago. Less has been said about another global religious leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the ceremonial head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, who was enthroned March 21, 2013, just three days after the papal inauguration in St. Peter’s Square.
The two men share more than a decade of service as the heads of their respective churches: They have both spent much of their tenures performing a balancing act between traditional church teaching on homosexuality and the wishes of many in their denominations’ ranks for the full acceptance of LGBTQ Christians. For both men, the pressure to accept openly gay priests and to recognize LGBTQ couples’ right to marry runs up against social conservatives’ insistence that it goes against Scripture and church teaching.
But of the two, Welby has had a more difficult, if not any less controversial, journey.
Francis has worked hard to change the church’s tone, adopting a gracious, welcoming pastoral posture in recognition of the fact that many Catholics find themselves outside the bounds of that teaching but nevertheless bear marks of God’s love in their lives and are worthy of his grace. But when reformers, particularly in the German church, have challenged Catholic teaching, Francis or his close deputies have reaffirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman and that sexual relations are properly reserved for such unions.
This dynamic means that progressives believe Francis is consciously expanding the horizon of what may one day be possible in the development of doctrine. If traditionalists see a pope actively encouraging a slippery slope, the doctrine of the Catholic Church remains unchanged.
Meanwhile, the strains in the Anglican Communion over LGBTQ affirmation, which have been present for more than 30 years, have pushed its constituent churches toward schism. The consecration of the communion’s first openly gay bishop by the Episcopal Church, its U.S. branch, in 2003, resulted in the departure of some American congregations and the founding of associations of conservative bishops and provinces, mostly in Africa and the Global South, based on their objection to the growing acceptance of homosexuality.
So while Welby has ably served, advocated for the poor, improved ecumenical and interfaith relations and spoken out on social concerns and human dignity, Anglican infighting over LGBTQ has often consumed his efforts.
This is true in part because his leadership of the global communion is largely based on tradition and deference to the Church of England as Anglicanism’s mother church. His leadership of 85 million Anglicans in 42 provinces spanning well more than 100 countries is based on moral suasion, not papal-style pronouncements. His continued authority depends on his finding a middle ground that will preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion.
His task became harder earlier this year when his home church’s governing body affirmed blessings for same-sex couples without moving to change church law on marriage.
“I hope that these prayers of love and faith can provide a way for us all to celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships,” Welby said in advance of a vote that approved the blessings last month. He had previously acknowledged the reality that the rites, which indicate affirmation of homosexual relationships, “will appear to go too far for some and not nearly far enough for others.”
Before the Church of England’s action, the conservative Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches warned that same-sex affirmation would lead to “impaired communion” with Anglican provinces and that Welby’s leadership would be “severely jeopardised.”
After the vote, GSFA, which represents as many as 35 million Anglicans, responded that Anglican unity is now further imperiled, saying to progressives in England and elsewhere: “We cannot walk with you unless you repent.”
Further complicating his impossible position, some members of Parliament have questioned whether the Church of England should remain as the established faith if it denies church weddings to Britons, who have had the legal right to marry civilly since 2013. Welby reportedly told MPs in a recent meeting that he would rather see the Church of England disestablished than risk further divisions within the Anglican Communion.
For his own part, Welby indicated at the time of his enthronement that he held a relatively traditional view of sexuality, but he has since conceded that his views have changed somewhat, and in October he upset opponents of LGBTQ inclusion by appointing as dean of Canterbury Cathedral a priest who is in a same-sex relationship.
He also indicated after his synod’s vote that he would not personally bless same-sex couples out of concern for the Anglican Communion’s ever more fragile unity. And even though the Church of England has prayers and rites for gay couples, Welby has pledged not to use them himself.
This was little consolation for many traditionalists in Africa and elsewhere, and Welby’s position is increasingly unsustainable. It points to a difficult truth of the LGBTQ debate, in church and society, often raised by conservatives: Either you affirm same-sex relationships or you do not. There really is no middle ground. This awareness has grown over several decades of increasingly difficult coexistence.
Archbishop Welby will take his turn on the world stage later this spring when he presides over the coronation of King Charles III. We will all wonder at how the Church of England and the monarchy have survived together this far into the modern world, and we will be reminded that the sovereign’s titles include Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
But beneath the surface, debates rage not only about national churches, but also about how ecumenical Christianity will accommodate diverse views about human sexuality.
(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)