A report on the Lambeth Conference
With the tagline ‘God’s Church for God’s World’, the fifteenth Lambeth Conference took place at the beginning of August at the University of Kent campus in Canterbury and with a visit in the middle of the programme to London. Over 650 bishops from 165 countries came to together for prayer, worship, discussion and affirmation. There was strong divergence on major themes such as sexuality and postcolonial relations, and the Communion’s status as a coalition more than a unified doctrinal or sacramental entity was never more obvious. The distinct approach of the Welby archiepiscopate was also on display. Slick visuals on screens accompanied his keynote addresses on 1 Peter, which contained some nuanced thinking in 40-minute slots akin to an evangelical sermon. The Lambeth Conference company team had come in wholesale from the charismatic ‘New Wine’ outfit over five years ago. Anyone familiar with its annual event in Somerset or the HTB Leadership Conferences at the Royal Albert Hall will have noted the similarities. Though one Society bishop described the overall atmosphere as ‘irenic’, some controversy was unavoidable.
In any international forum, the postcolonial problem is painful to watch. The Black Lives Matter movement has convulsed the world, commendably raising the issue of structural racism but at the same time framing it with a very American concern. Race relations are different in the US because of a long, violent and bitter history, but they have unhelpfully come to dominate almost all multicultural dialogue in the West as a result. Mapping that onto a history of the British Empire is a fundamental confusion. Sexuality is a case in point here. In many Commonwealth countries, homosexuality remains illegal in statutes which date from the age of Empire. As the bishops gathered in Canterbury, athletes from around the world converged on Birmingham for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. The diver Tom Daley did not compete but took part in the opening ceremony with a Pride flag and issued a statement: ‘In over half of the Commonwealth countries, homosexuality is still a crime and in 3 of those countries the maximum penalty is the death sentence. These laws are a legacy of colonialism. This opening ceremony for us is about showing LGBTQ+ visibility to the billion people watching’.
Many bishops seemed proud to be coming to the UK for the Conference, but on arrival at the university campus they were greeted with numerous Pride flags and banners, and a disclaimer to sign saying they would not discriminate against anyone while there on the grounds of sexuality. There was also a pro-LGBTQ+ march across the campus arranged by university staff. How necessary was any of this confrontationism? White guilt or postcolonial hesitancy had nothing to with showing respect and hospitality to honoured guests from across the globe, no matter how much they might disagree with their views. A handful of visiting bishops, mostly American, took part in the demo, which tried to focus the whole agenda more on sexuality than was intended. For some this has become an ‘only/or’ issue and not ‘both/and’.
The Sandi Toksvig Affair was another case in point, and seemed to give the event more national media column inches than anything else. Getting hold of the wrong end of the stick, a retired BBC representer with fading celebrity decided to stand on her lesbianism and accuse the Conference of affirming ‘gay sex is a sin’ via an open letter shared on Twitter. (Her sarcastic comments spoke of a ‘finely frocked gang’ yet a number of bishops were there in shorts as temperatures soared, and many others looked like off-duty teachers or solicitors; clerical collars were not consistent.) What’s more, she is a Humanist who doesn’t go to church and also bundled in the conversion therapy problem. Fortunately, the Archbishop responded a few hours later with a succinct letter making clear his opposition to homophobia and conversion therapy. He neatly underlined how ‘the Anglican Communion is a complicated global group of churches… There are deep differences in many areas. This week we have been honest about the differences and nevertheless accept each other’ and invited her for coffee. Her follow-up tweet said ‘Thanks, lovely. Mine’s a black no sugar, please.’
The next morning was the day trip to Lambeth Palace and there was palpable relief amongst the staff team that a major bust-up had been avoided. In part this was due to an impressive presidential intervention from Archbishop Welby who had written to all bishops ahead of the Human Dignity Call to appeal for balance, noting that ‘Lambeth 1.10 [not in doubt and that whole resolution is still in existence] itself continues to be a source of pain, anxiety and contention among us. That has been very clear over the course of this Lambeth Conference. That is also part of the current reality of our Communion.’
His opening remarks on important principles ahead of the Call discussion were presidential. ‘First, the Call is about Human Dignity and also about Sexuality. The reason the two are combined is that its central theological foundation is that all human beings are of equal worth, loved by God and are those for whom Jesus died on the Cross and rose to life. As St Paul says again and again in Romans “there is no distinction”.
Second, as we discuss this, we are all vulnerable. For the large majority of the Anglican Communion the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted and without question, not only by Bishops but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live. For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.
For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence. So let us not treat each other lightly or carelessly. We are deeply divided. That will not end soon. We are called by Christ himself both to truth and unity.
Third, there is no attempt to change people’s minds in this Call. It states as a fact that the vast majority of Anglicans in the large majority of Provinces and Dioceses do not believe that a change in teaching is right. Therefore, it is the case that the whole of Lambeth 1.10 1998 still exists. This Call does not in any way question the validity of that resolution. The Call states that many Provinces – and I say again, I think we need to acknowledge it’s the majority – continue to affirm that same-gender marriage is not permissible. The Call also states that other provinces have blessed and welcomed same sex union or marriage, after careful theological reflection and a process of reception.’
‘You are the shepherds of your flock as I am the shepherd of the flock that I serve,’ he concluded. ‘Let us not act in a way that disgraces our witness. Speak frankly, but in love.’
There were inevitable questions at the next morning’s press conference, once the Anglican Communion Forest had been presented. ‘Are you out of the woods yet?’ he was asked. And in his characteristic way of using humour to deflect, Welby said ‘In my experience, no sooner are we out of one wood than we’ve found another to get ourselves into’ – giving Bishop Graham Usher, the CofE’s spokesperson on green matters, to quip ‘And this one’s called the Communion Forest!’. But there was also some primatial testiness. ‘The proof of the pudding will be in the eating,’ he commented further once Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, the Archbishop of Cape Town, Church of Southern Africa, and Chair of the Lambeth Conference Design Group, had offered a view. Then, what had minutes before been all about the environment, ecology turned to ecclesiology with a question on relations with other churches. Archbishop Welby expressed regret with the word ‘ashamed’ that ecumenism had not been more active or fruitful in recent years, and referred to ‘an ecumenical emergency’ – which dovetails with ‘climate crisis’. Asked about the Pope’s health, he made it clear it’s his knee which is the problem, and that the anticipated joint visit to South Sudan was still planned to go ahead in due course. Numerous ecumenical guests were present, and especially on this Lambeth Palace day. In itself that was encouraging as interdenominational relations require the participation of all, and Anglicans are – and have been – uniquely positioned in this.
Perhaps Welby was sensitive to confusion from bishops themselves in the sessions. The Call on Anglican Identity on the Monday had thrown out the idea of a further Instrument of Communion. The suggestion then that a Global South ‘Anglican Congress’ take place did not receive obvious vocal support either, except it was then reported as having passed and one will indeed take place. Likewise, the idea there were daggers drawn over sexuality was false. General relations and conversations were cordial. True, a number of Global South and Gafcon bishops (including the Primates of Rwanda, Nigeria, and Uganda) had stayed away, but the assertion that others present would not be receiving holy communion because of divergences was played up. Several of them said they would decide that for themselves, even though this did not stop a number of agitators on the fringe (seemingly conservative evangelicals) from banging the drum on their behalf.
He also had some justification in being annoyed about some themes receiving unequal attention. ‘A small proportion of our time together was spent on [sexuality]: there was one paragraph in one out of ten Calls, and it took up about 90 minutes in total of the plenary sessions over 11 days,’ he wrote later in the Church Times. ‘There is no doubting that these are matters on which there is profound disagreement among us, and that was clear in the run-up to that session. But again, by the grace of God we “walked in the light” and committed ourselves to listening and walking together to the maximum possible degree, despite our deep disagreements.’
Yet why did the planning not take some of this into account? Almost as soon as the Conference started there was rushed revision to the Calls process. First, that they would not be recorded, and second, that Calls could be rejected instead of supported outright or recommended for further work. Even the idea of a ‘Call’ instead of a resolution looked like sophistry – not binding, or at least not in the same way. And this still didn’t see off any consternation. The inclusion of Lambeth 1.10 1998 in the advance reading pack was enough alone to get some bishops going, and mere days before the Human Dignity Call was still being redrafted. Was this because people hadn’t properly engaged with it before then, or because pitfalls had been overlooked or ignored? Either way, with so much delay there should have been ample time to prepare for this.
Though Archbishop Welby called this ‘a moment of transformation’, it has implications for the Living in Love & Faith process currently ongoing in the Church of England. Traditional marriage can be upheld without homophobia, but for some even that is too much and the gap will continue to widen. Much has been forgotten about how in the 1960s it contributed to the decriminalization of homosexuality in this country, and did much for AIDS patients in the 1980s and 90s. More intentional work, therefore, on working with provinces and the FCDO for decriminalization across the Commonwealth (not least the death penalty) must be a priority. And considering the way in which mutual flourishing is too often flouted in general, any proposed compromise needs robust interrogation.
Another outcome from the event is how little media coverage there was, or how much of it was highly partisan. In part this is a sad reflection on how little the national newspapers and broadcasters think of religion and Christianity in particular. Not too long ago, a Religious Affairs Correspondent was on most newspaper desks; that is no longer the case. It plays into historically low levels of religious literacy in Britain, and little surprise the Toksvig outburst caused such a flurry. The Church of England, once referred to as the Tory Party at prayer, is now at risk thanks to most bishops of looking like the Labour Party on edge. There has been much tweeting and opining on themes such as Brexit and Partygate, but precious little on the cost of living crisis or the war in Ukraine. Bishops may be political but they are not elected political representatives. The bien-pensant handwringing is neither interesting nor welcome. More spiritual and intellectual traction with the themes of our day is required. The world needs more Tawneys, Temples and Niebuhrs.
When will the next Lambeth Conference take place and how is succession to be understood? Perhaps in a throwaway, or politically, Welby admitted during an interview in July that he will stay in post until 2026 ‘if people are happy’ and health permitting. This event was already put back from 2018 to 2020 to enable the Archbishop to shuttle around other primates in advance and seek some alignment. Covid delayed it by a further two years. How much time will a 2026 retirement give his successor for the next Conference task, whether it be in 2032 or sooner? And how much will happen over the next decade to change the socioeconomic, environmental and ecclesiological realities even further? The General Synod has voted to increase Anglican Communion representation on the appointment panel from one to five places. This acknowledges explicitly for the first time how Cantuar is first among equals in the Communion and those votes come the next appointment may prefer to elect a more conservative candidate than has been the case in recent years.
Putting together an event like the Lambeth Conference is a massive undertaking. It helped to demonstrate how much strength and variety there is in the Anglican Communion, and something we have started to see with their bishops, often women, coming into CofE posts. But diversity (and inclusivity, as Bishop Martin Warner observes) is not the same as catholicity. The ties that bind must be flexible enough to allow creativity, and durable enough to ensure togetherness – properly understood and acknowledged. A gathering on this scale also points to the many opportunities within our grasp, both now and in the years to come. The Anglican Communion has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts. Visionary leadership and unswerving dedication to its aims may bring this about, whenever and however the next Lambeth Conference may happen. God’s world demands nothing less.
A Message from Her Majesty The Queen to the Lambeth Conference
It is with great pleasure that I send my warm greetings as you continue your meeting in the fifteenth Lambeth Conference. As we all emerge from the pandemic, I know that the Conference is taking place at a time of great need for the love of God – both in word and deed.
I am reminded that this gathering was necessarily postponed two years ago, when you had hoped to mark the centenary of the Lambeth Conference that took place in 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War. Then, the bishops of the Anglican Communion set out a path for an ongoing commitment towards Christian unity in a changing world; a task that is, perhaps, even more important today, as together you look to the future and explore the role of the church in responding to the needs of the present age.
Now, as so often in the past, you have convened during a period of immense challenge for bishops, clergy and lay people around the world, with many of you serving in places of suffering, conflict and trauma. It is of comfort to me that you do so in the strength of God.
We also live in a time when the effects of climate change are threatening the lives and livelihoods of many people and communities, not least the poorest and those less able to adapt and adjust. I was interested to learn that the focus of your programme at Lambeth Palace today is reflection and dialogue on the theme of the environment, a cause close to the heart of my late husband, and carried on by The Prince of Wales and The Duke of Cambridge.
Throughout my life, the message and teachings of Christ have been my guide and in them I find hope. It is my heartfelt prayer that you will continue to be sustained by your faith in times of trial and encouraged by hope at times of despair.
I send my warmest good wishes to you all for a successful Conference and may God bless you in your ministry and service in his world.
3rd August, 2022
Over 600 bishops in one place! Lambeth 2022 was my second conference. The last one being in 2008. This one had been postponed from 2020 because of the pandemic and was a week shorter.
Most people arrived on Tuesday 26th July and had the next day to rest and recover. Many of the bishops and 300 spouses had travelled for over 24 hours to get to Canterbury and were visibly suffering from jet lag and culture shock.
On the Thursday, we began a day and a half retreat in Canterbury Cathedral. I say retreat but you wouldn’t have recognised it as such as most of the bishops were very eager to talk to each other and get to know one another. On the Friday afternoon we all had to dress up in red convocation robes for the Lambeth Conference photo. Imagine trying to herd 600 robed bishops onto a specially installed scaffold to accommodate everyone in the blistering heat. It took almost an hour from seating the first person to finally take the photos. Amazingly only one person, a Salvation Army Officer dressed in her full uniform, fainted! If you have a free moment and need a bit of fun you can see the photo on the website (as well as p5) and try finding me or your bishop.
The actual conference began on the Saturday morning with the first of five Bible studies on the First Letter of Peter led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. We then went to our Bible Study Groups for discussion. In my group I had eight other bishops: one each from Australia, Canada, South Africa, India, South Sudan, Kenya and the USA, and the Bishop of Sodor & Man.
Each day the conference met to discuss several different areas of church life which the archbishop described as Lambeth Calls. These were designed to test the support of the bishops for areas such as Mission & Evangelism, Discipleship, Reconciliation, Safe Church, the Environment, Anglican Identity and Christian Unity. Of course, the most contentious issue was the Lambeth Call on Human Dignity because of the division of opinions with the Communion about same-sex relationships and the different interpretations of the Bible on such issues between more liberal societies and those bishops working in countries where homosexuality is still illegal. Nothing was resolved and no vote was taken but there was recognition that different provinces were likely to come to different conclusions after theological reflection and a process of reception. Something the Church of England is also in the middle of, using the Living in Love and Faith resources.
On the first Sunday we all gathered in Canterbury Cathedral for the opening service. Probably the longest procession in and out of the Cathedral. It took almost 25 minutes each time. On the second Wednesday we were all bused in coaches to Lambeth Palace for discussions about the environment. The second main service was the closing one, back in the Cathedral. And then began the many journeys home.
It is an amazing feat of organisation to gather bishops from around the world and made me realise just how rich and diverse is the Anglican Communion.
The Rt Rev Tony Robinson, Bishop of Wakefield
I did enjoy the Lambeth Conference. Two things stood out as signs of theological virtue and the fragility of that virtue in the Anglican Communion of our own time.
The first was a diverse company of voices. It was a reminder of Pentecost, as the Archbishop of York powerfully told us. It also gave us the privilege of hearing some of the poorest people in the world speak to us directly.
We were issued with headsets in order to ensure that a range of languages could be used by speakers. For the most part these were European languages. But the liturgical music and many of the vox pop interviews were in the indigenous languages of Africa, America and the Middle and Far East. The sounds and the visuals of the Conference immersed us in the international nature of the Church and hinted at its orientation towards catholicity, which is not the same as inclusivity.
So the Conference became anxious about how not to make any binding decisions. This was indicative of wanting to loosen the bonds of communion (catholicity) in order to embrace some form of reconciled diversity.
The Anglican Communion has emerged as more of a federation, perhaps the inevitable consequence to rejecting an Anglican Covenant. We do not share commitment to a liturgical rite and practice; the commonality of the three-fold order of ministry lacks the mobility of Roman Catholic deployment (safeguarding is a new hurdle to overcome); the moral and theological disciplines of our ecclesial life (admission to communion, marriage and ordination) are significantly varied.
In spite of that, we recognised an unmistakable family likeness in each other, with its origin in the Church of England. But colonialism cast a long shadow of exploitation and shame. Some Anglophone bishops consequently found it difficult to identify the persistent, joyful work of grace that has not been entirely frustrated by the sins of our forebears.
The second thing that stood out was attention to the word of God in scripture. Excellent material on the first epistle of St Peter had been prepared for the two day retreat addresses and the daily keynote talks.
The choice of this text provided a welcome balance to the priority that is often attached to the Pauline epistles. But references to Petrine teaching didn’t quite enable us to admit to catching up with what Pope St John Paul II had sought to articulate in his 1995 encyclical, Ut unum sint, on how the Petrine office might serve us all.
The Rt Rev Martin Warner,
Bishop of Chichester