The 15th Lambeth Conference, entitled God’s church for God’s world, drew to a close on August 7th with the celebration of the Eucharist at Canterbury Cathedral. The conference drew approximately 650 Anglican bishops representing 165 countries. Something like a mini-Ecumenical Council or a Synod — both of which it is not — The Lambeth Conference is a once-a-decade meeting of bishops currently serving with jurisdiction in the Anglican Communion and is chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Like many things Anglican, the conference is an evolving entity being a fairly recent development. The idea of an international gathering of Anglican bishops was first suggested by Bishop John Henry Hopkins of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont in 1851. But the first conference took place in 1867 at the behest of Anglican bishops in Canada. Then, like now, the authority of the Lambeth Conference to “speak the mind of the Communion” was debated. The first conference was boycotted by the Archbishop of York and most of his province. This year the conference was boycotted by the churches of Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda.
The conference was slated to take place in 2018 but postponed over issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage within member churches of the Communion – and then again because of the the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, just a handful of the 46 national churches in the Communion allow same-sex marriages, and out (let alone, married/partnered) LGBT+ clergy. The topic was set to derail the Conference again this year when just before the arrival of the bishops in Canterbury it was unexpectedly announced that there would be a vote on affirming Lambeth Resolution 1.10. The (in)famous resolution from the Lambeth Conference held in 1998 states that it is the mind of the Communion that homosexual relationships and same-sex marriage are unbiblical. Archbishop Justin Welby and his organisers quickly reworded this year’s “Call” (read, resolution) on Human Dignity so it was no longer a blanket re-affirmation of Lambeth 1.10. They also added the option for bishops to vote against the so-called “Calls” altogether. In an effort to control debate a negative response to the various “Calls” (read, resolutions) was not originally included as a choice for the bishops. In the end it seems that equipment failure meant that none of the “Calls” were voted upon by the bishops en masse during the length of the conference — perhaps the work of the Spirit. On this front it seems that Welby did indeed thread the needle. In various remarks he affirmed as a matter of fact that the majority of the bishops in the Anglican Communion do not agree with changing teaching regarding traditional marriage, but that those national churches that have, have done so in good faith, with deep scriptural reasoning, loving Christ. No consensus – but no schism. Not this time at least. And in the Anglican world, this is a win.
In fact, reports are that the bishops’ official discussions regarding human sexuality lasted just over an hour – a mere fraction of the almost two weeks they were gathered. And good news that, as other more notable developments were happening on the ecclesiological front:
- It is now clear that most disagreements in the Anglican Communion are due to the way member churches read the Bible. The vast majority of Anglicans in the Communion are biblical fundamentalist. The Anglican South often sees contemporary biblical hermeneutics as a form of neo-colonialism — a mentally euro-centric, academic, perhaps even unfaithful, northern hemisphere dictating how the Bible should be read in other cultures. There seems ample need for discussions among Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans around the English theologian Richard Hooker’s assertion that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason form a dialectical source of authority.
- In the course of the conference the Archbishop of Canterbury stated, “I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline or exclude a church of the Anglican Communion. I will not do so.” So no Anglican Pope. Some Global South bishops had been requesting personal interventions by the Archbishops of Canterbury within member churches for years. But Welby’s negation is problematic given that the Archbishop of Canterbury has traditionally decided which churches are “authentically” Anglican when issuing invitations to the Lambeth Conference. For example, breakaway traditionalist North American bishops are not invited to the Lambeth Conference as participants (though this year they were offered observer status). Welby also chose not to issue invitations to the spouses of lesbian and gay bishops. So the Archbishop does exercise some communion-shaping authority, whether he wants to admit it or not. Subsequently, some Global South bishops have taken Welby’s demur to be an invitation to assume a type of global synodal power in an attempt to define binding Anglican doctrine in the future.
- Perhaps the most poignant interventions at the Lambeth Conference came from Archbishop Nikitas (the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Great Britain), Cardinal Tagle, and Cardinal Koch (represented by Rev. Anthony Currer). Koch offered a masterful investigation of the quest for ecclesial unity suggesting that our churches are now living in an “ecumenical emergency”. His paper explored what unity and ‘reconciled diversity’ among churches actually means. One of the angles of inquiry questions how intra-church approaches to theological divergence are read onto the ecumenical movement; can diversity within churches fulfill Christ’s prayer that “all may be one” among churches? This is a question that touches directly upon the situation of the Church of England and its current discussions regarding human sexuality, and the relationships between national churches that make up the Anglican Communion. Take away quotes from the presentation include: “We need a common vision, because we shall grow further apart, if we do not have a common goal.” “We agree we want unity. But we do not agree on what kind.”
Few events from the Lambeth Conference touched directly upon the liturgy — Except the refusal of some bishops from the Global South to receive communion at the same Eucharist in which lesbian and gay bishops, as well as LGBTQ+ affirming national churches, participated. Yet I find the selected issues I have noted above involving ecclesiology and ecumenism to be significant for the PrayTell community. It seems to me that a number points raised during the Lambeth Conference can provide both Anglicans and the wider Church much to reflect upon as liturgists, theologians, pastors, and practitioners preparing for next year’s Societas Liturgica to be held in Maynooth, Ireland. Just maybe, we can hope, our churches joined together in worship, prayer, and study, will have something new to offer to the Church universal regarding the ecumenical emergency at hand.