When the Lambeth Conference opens later this month, it will surely be some of relief to Archbishop Welby. The event had been scheduled for 2020 but was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. By rights, it should have followed the ten-year cycle and taken place in 2018, but Justin Welby had made it clear he wanted to visit all primates in their own countries – a sort of shuttle diplomacy reminiscent of Tony Blair – to ensure the vast majority of them would attend. To that end, a primates’ meeting in Canterbury at the beginning of 2016 agreed to plan the 15th Lambeth Conference for 2020. Its further delay has thrown up more than just logistical complications. Over 650 bishops are planning to travel to the UK for it this summer along with 480 spouses. Virtual meetings in groups of 20 have already occurred for bishops to get acquainted, discuss and pray. All those in attendance during 26 July-8 August, be put up on the university campus in Canterbury with those unable to make it being invited to join in online. Some have made their feelings clear: the Primates of Uganda, Rwanda, and Nigeria are not coming due to Communion divergence over scripture and sexuality.
Two issues have dominated the background to this international gathering for the last decade or so: women in holy orders and homosexuality. The Church of England voted for women bishops in 2014, the same year in which the first female primate in the Anglican Communion, Katharine Jefferts Schori in the Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA), entered her final year in office. Her 2006 election was controversial, with some US dioceses lobbying the Archbishop of Canterbury for ‘alternative primatial oversight’, an approach which other parts of the Anglican Communion followed, even ones which ordained women. But Jefferts Schori had also supported the election of gay and partnered Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. She was, clearly, a liberal, and it was precisely this move that helped bring about the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a series of meetings between bishops from 2008 onwards. Primarily they have been concerned with the perceived rise in secular influence on the Anglican Communion, and increased support for same-sex marriage in particular.
Because of its stance, ECUSA was given what amounted to a sanction in January 2016 when the 2018 Conference was announced: a three-year exclusion from Anglican Communion decisions on ‘issues pertaining to doctrine or polity’. In 2018, the GAFCON primates (a number of African archbishops alongside representatives from South and North America) were united in stating they would not allow any further ordinations of women to the episcopate in their member churches. Its makeup is now mainly conservative evangelical.
The Lambeth Conference is one of the Anglican ‘Instruments of Communion’ – the others being the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council (resourced by the Anglican Communion Office), and the Primates’ Meeting – and is seen as being central to Anglican identity. It has, however, changed dramatically since the first Lambeth Conference in 1867. Back then, the shape and form of empire walked hand-in-hand with the Church of England’s missional and inculturating presence throughout its territories and dominions. The dissolution of the British Empire from the end of the 1940s and the establishment of the Commonwealth was both crisis and opportunity for the Church of England, nobly seized by Archbishop Fisher.
The 1948 Conference came at a crucial time. The British Council of Churches had been founded in 1942, (Fisher served as its Chairman from 1945,) and the Second World War sharpened a sense of the need for reconciliation and harmony wherever possible. In a sermon in Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, in November 1946 he promoted a distinctly Anglican idea of ‘full communion’ – somewhere between federation organic union, ‘that while the fold remain distinct, there should be a movement towards a free and unfettered exchange of life in worship and sacrament’. He mapped this onto the World Council of Churches, formally inaugurated in August 1948 in Amsterdam and continued to advocate for greater understanding and cooperation. ‘The Anglican Communion realized that it was a communion,’ said Stanley Eley, Fisher’s chaplain. ‘When you have over a hundred US bishops meeting half a dozen Japanese bishops only three years after the war, the emotional currents are bound to be there’
Socioeconomic concerns and political considerations also play their part. Back in 1948, rationing was still in force and the relatively new Labour government under Clement Attlee had just established the NHS. The partition of India had occurred the previous year, and the British Empire was seeing its sunset. In many ways, the Church of England predicted the Commonwealth through the transfer of power for the first time in various regions to local autonomies, the churches in charge of their own provinces, and it was completely consistent with Anglican Communion ethos. Archbishop Runcie’s conference in 1988 saw a Church of England at odds with its government domestically (on taxes, poor relief, and war) as well as internationally (notably South Africa). The Archbishop’s envoy Terry Waite had been taken hostage in Beirut at the beginning of 1987. The AIDS crisis was raging internationally. The Alternative Service Book 1980 gave a liturgical conundrum, and the ‘Crockford Preface’ tragedy of 1986 was still fresh. Debates over women’s ministry were frequent. By the time of Archbishop Carey’s Conference in 1998, the ‘Decade of Evangelism’ was in full – if questionable – swing. It had been agreed at the 1988 Conference although an English preoccupation with falling church numbers wanted a shift from ‘maintenance to evangelism’. In the UK it was at best confused; trying to make it work globally for all Anglicans was nigh impossible.
1998 was also the Conference with Resolution 1:10 which emerged from 1991’s ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’. Though not legally binding, it affirmed the mind of all that marriage is between a man and a woman, and abstinence outside marriage is required. It also committed ‘to listen to the experience of homosexual persons’, with the assurance they are loved by God, and condemned irrational fear of them. It continued to dominate the tenure of Archbishop Williams; the twin themes of his 2008 conference were equipping bishops for leadership in mission and strengthening the Communion.
The mood music for this gathering is no less challenging. The British Department for International Development (DfID) which had been set up in 1997 ‘to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty’ was subsumed into the Foreign Office in 2020 with the logic that overseas aid and investment goals should be more closely synchronized with diplomatic initiatives. The Brexit vote of 2016 has meant a rethink on relations with non-EU partners, particularly the Commonwealth where many countries are Anglican Communion members. War in Ukraine continues with its implications for food and fuel shortages, price increases, and refugees. The idea that Ukrainians be deported to Rwanda has met with widespread dismay, particularly amongst UK bishops. An official Welby tweet made pains to clarify ‘the Church of England’s opposition to deporting asylum seekers without any kind of assessment or care is not because the destination is Rwanda. We would oppose such heartless treatment wherever people were sent.’ Ecumenically, the Archbishop’s planned trip to South Sudan with the Pope has been delayed due the Holy Father’s health. Orthodox disputes bedevil the Eastern churches with extra anxiety over the politicised patriarchate of Kirill in Moscow.
Strongly divisive identity politics convulse culture everywhere, including ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the most recent US development: its Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v Wade after 50 years and return abortion legislation to lawmakers in individual states. Nationalism, be it throughout Europe, Asia and especially India, has not been at such fever pitch since the 1930s and ‘40s. The plight of Christians in China continues to be precarious. The resurgence of Afghanistan’s Taliban raises many questions. And there is the coronavirus pandemic.
Anglican bishops coming together in Canterbury this summer will have much to discuss, think about and pray for. It is equally hoped they will find more to agree over than disagree.
At the Lambeth Conference in 2022 (like that of 2008), there will be no resolutions. The Archbishop of Canterbury has decided that the bishops gathered should adopt a process of ‘Lambeth Calls’ to shape discussions and make decisions. Through themes arising from the study of scripture (especially 1 Peter), bishops at the Conference will be invited to consider God’s call to the Church and the world today. The purpose of the Lambeth Calls will be to enable a deeper faithfulness to God, advance the ministry of the communion, and enable wider participation in the calls by churches and communities around the world.
On each theme, the bishops will spend time learning together and sharing their experiences. They will also have a document to consider on each major theme. The documents are being shaped in such a way that will include a summary of what the Christian Church has always taught about these matters, a summary of what the bishops want to say on these matters today and then a series of specific ‘calls’ to future witness. That is, what actions or changes or challenges on these themes do we want to give to each other, to our fellow Christians and to the world.
Within each ‘Call’ there will be matters to discuss and decisions to be made. It may be that not all bishops will want to add their voices to every element of every call. As has always been the case at every Lambeth conference, bishops will confer together but not necessarily agree on everything. Each ‘Call’ is being drafted by a group made up of bishops, clergy and laity from around the communion led by a Primate or senior bishop.
The intention is to make public each of the ‘Calls’ from the conference and to ensure the process by which the outcomes in each one can be received and implemented. Member churches will be invited to consider the calls in their own synods and other bodies. It is expected that several themes from the ‘Calls’ will be on the agenda for the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in 2023.
A ‘Call’ represents what the so-called ‘resolutions’ did up to the conference of 1998. A call is a decision of the conference which comes as an appeal to each church of the Communion to consider carefully, and hopefully to follow it and respond to it in its own situation.