The Lambeth Conferences opens on July 26th, just over a month away. In recent days there has been quite a flurry of activity—including two announcements from the Archbishop of Canterbury—which has highlighted some of the challenges that it will face.
The first communication was the text of a letter sent on 27th May by Archbishop Justin and Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon (Secretary General of the Anglican Communion) to the Primates of the three provinces which have so far refused to attend the Conference (Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda). This was in response to a statement from these Primates (who are members of GAFCON’s Primates’ Council, which includes 4 other Communion Primates and 2 other non-Communion Primates) following the Communique released after the March Primates’ Meeting that they had also not attended. In the course of writing this piece the Primates have replied with an even more robust letter. Worryingly, their response seems to deny the indisputable fact that Lambeth I.10 not only upholds traditional teaching but speaks against homophobia. Their letter also, as in earlier correspondence by the Archbishop of Nigeria, uses language which many will find offensive and in contravention of those parts of I.10 (warning against “irrational fear of homosexuals” and calling for “listening to the experience of homosexual persons and assuring them that they are loved by God”) as well as poor use of Scripture. Its reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, fails to recognise that there is a significant consensus including among traditionalists that warns against simplistic appeals to this text in current disagreements (Richard Hays says it is “actually irrelevant to the topic” (Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 381) and Robert Gagnon that “to the extent that the story does not deal directly with consensual homosexual relationships, it is not an ‘ideal’ text to guide contemporary Christian sexual ethics” (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 71) and that it has historically been misused in damaging ways.
The second release was a short video in which Archbishop Justin announced that instead of issuing no statements (like the 2008 Conference) or issuing resolutions (as at all 13 Conferences from 1867 to 2008) the 2022 Conference will issue Calls, a development explained in more detail on the Conference website and in a short 5 page booklet.
The first of these interventions raises again the question of who will attend and not attend and, given their reasons, what can be done to persuade bishops to attend. The second provides some greater clarity in relation to the question of what outcomes are being sought from those who do attend but also raises and leaves unanswered some significant questions. Though obviously distinct, these two questions are also connected. This post addresses the first question; a second (next week) will address the question of outcomes.
Who will attend?
The letter from Archbishops Justin and Josiah was presented by the Anglican Communion News Service as emphasising that “Nigerian, Rwandan and Ugandan bishops’ invitation to Lambeth Conference remains open”. This is encouraging news given how close we are to the Conference and how much more difficult the conference could prove to be should bishops from these provinces attend. Together they comprise a large number of bishops leading a very significant proportion of the global Communion. The Anglican Communion Office lists Nigeria as having 160 dioceses, Rwanda twelve, and Uganda 37 (a total of 209 diocesan bishops) while the Primates claim their provinces “represent about 30 million of the estimated 70 million Anglicans worldwide”. Although care is needed in relation to such claims about membership, David Goodhew’s recent work has noted that the two largest of these three provinces when combined with Kenya (whose Primate is also on the GAFCON Primates’ Council but whose 37 dioceses are attending the Conference) “number 42 million (as of 2015), nearly half of Global Anglicanism”.
Goodhew cites figures which show how over the last half century the composition of the Communion has changed dramatically with the number of Anglicans rising from nearly 8 million to nearly 57 million in Africa between 1970 and 2015. In the same period North American Anglicans have diminished from just over 4 million to just over 2.5 million. The diocese of Northern Michigan has only 21 congregations and 908 members and had average Sunday attendance across the whole diocese of just 233 in 2020 (down from 385 in 2019). Despite this shift, the number of North American bishops at the Lambeth Conference has basically remained unchanged. They still have 112 dioceses in the USA (with just 1.7 million members and average Sunday attendance across TEC of under 500,000) and 32 in Canada (where average diocesan Sunday attendance in 2017 was under 1,000 in 10 of these dioceses and under 100,000 across the whole church).
The composition of the Lambeth Conference is therefore currently massively unrepresentative and biased towards the Global North even if all Communion bishops attend. If these three provinces are not present the distortion is even more grotesque.
Their attendance is also important because these provinces stayed away from the last Lambeth Conference in 2008. This means that they were last present in 1998. If they do not attend this year then by the time of the next Lambeth Conference it will be well over three decades since their voices were heard in this crucial Instrument of Communion. That date of 1998 is important for at least two reasons. It was the first (and therefore so far only) Lambeth Conference in which all 3 provinces were represented as autonomous provinces: Rwanda for the first time, Uganda and Nigeria for the second having first been represented as provinces only in 1988. It was also, famously, when the Conference overwhelmingly passed Resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality. It is the consequences of that resolution and the handling of these consequences by consecutive Archbishops and the Instruments that underlies what the letter to the 3 Primates describes as their “boycotts”.
While the letter’s appeal to these provinces’ bishops to attend is very welcome, how it attempts to persuade towards attendance is disappointing. If such persuasion seeks to be effective it should be marked by at least two features: recognition of the problems these Primates and their provinces have and the perspective they hold and reassurance in relation to their concerns. There are, sadly, few signs of these in the letter.
A. Recognition of the Three Primates’ Problems and Perspective
The reality is that for these three provinces (and for many others in the wider Global South Fellowship of Anglicans, GSFA) the developments since 1998 have generated a conflict in relation to fundamentals of Christian faith and Anglican identity. This view was acknowledged in The Windsor Report of 2004 which was accepted by the Instruments of the Communion. It noted the effect of the then actions of the churches in the USA and Canada (relating to blessings of same-sex unions and consecration of only one bishop living in one, not yet directly touching on marriage):
The overwhelming response from other Christians both inside and outside the Anglican family has been to regard these developments as departures from genuine, apostolic Christian faith…Some eighteen of the thirty-eight provinces of the Anglican Communion, or their primates on their behalf, have issued statements which indicate, in a variety of ways, their basic belief that the developments in North America are “contrary to biblical teaching” and as such unacceptable (para 28).
The Jerusalem Statement from GAFCON in 2008 reiterates this in strong terms framing it in terms of Paul’s letter to the Galatians as a “false gospel”. The wider GSFA made clear in 2017 that it is in fellowship with those who have formed ACNA because of the seriousness of the situation. That followed their joint 2016 statement with GAFCON that included the statement (para 9) that
Any pastoral provision by a church for a same-sex couple (such as a liturgy or a service to bless their sexual union) that obviates the need for repentance and a commitment to pursue a change of conduct enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, would contravene the orthodox and historic teaching of the Anglican Communion on marriage and sexuality.
Faced with such an interpretation it is not sufficient to write, as Archbishops Justin and Josiah do in their letter, that “there have always been disagreements on matters that affect the faith and life of the church” and that the response is “prayerful discussion and listening to the views of those who differ”. This does not recognise the problems these Primates and their provinces have and the perspective they hold. Nor does it acknowledge the significance of the Lambeth Conference as a gathering of bishops seeking to take counsel together and speak as bishops together to and for the church. This means some in conscience will not be able even to gather together as they cannot recognise others as faithful bishops with whom they are in the depth of communion implied by the nature of the gathering.
Levels of Disagreement
In terms of the Church of England’s own proposed differentiation of levels of disagreement, as set out in Living and Love and Faith, these Primates see the problem as one of bishops “advocating something simply incompatible with the good news of Jesus…teaching something that amounts to a rejection of Jesus’ call on one’s life” (p. 231). Even at the next level of disagreement—those which “undermine our ability to live and work together as one church…make it hard to worship together, to share sacraments” (p. 231)—there would be grounds for staying away. Many from the Global South who are attending are likely to view the disagreements in these terms with a possible serious impact on the liturgical life of the Conference. The Archbishops’ letter seems to place the issue in the third category among those “that don’t prevent us working together as one church” (p. 231) and so “we should be able to respect one another’s opinions on the matter and carry on within the same church” (p. 232). They seem not to have heeded LLF’s warning that a situation where it is already “very difficult for those involved to hear and respond to one another” (p. 231) is “likely to be made much worse” if, in relation to this question of the nature of the disagreement, “the difference in perception is not acknowledged or reflected upon” (p. 232).
In situations of such deep and serious disagreement, there is an alternative approach to either absenting oneself or simply “listening to the views of those who differ”. This is found within the Galatians paradigm of interpreting our disagreements that these Primates are working with: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned…When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all….” (Gal 2:11, 14). Given that these provinces have not attended a Lambeth Conference since these events took place the best argument to put to them is that if they are to respond biblically then they need to attend in order to follow the pattern of Paul here. They will then be able to say, “When X,Y and Z came to Lambeth, I opposed them to their face, because they stood condemned…When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to them in front of all the bishops of the Communion….”. That is, surely, the strongest argument that can be made if there is a serious attempt to persuade these bishops to attend: “I do not agree with your interpretation of what has happened but if you hold to it sincerely as I believe you do then this is what you should do if you wish to be biblical”.
Ignoring the Issue?
This argument though needs, secondly, to recognise that these provinces—and many others—feel they have been trying for nearly two decades to follow this path but have been ignored, outmanoeuvred, or misled by others, including the Instruments. There is not time or space to trace the long sad history here but three key points are now clear. First, that the responses of the North American churches to the Windsor vision of life in Communion and its call to repent and effect a moratorium (which were seen as ambiguous but received by some in good faith as signalling willingness to engage) were at best misleading and at worst duplicitous. The leadership of those churches have continued further down the path of disregarding the wider mind of the Communion on the basis of their legal autonomy and convictions as to what the Spirit is saying to them. There is no evidence that—with the honourable and notable exception of the Communion Partners—they ever intended to do otherwise. Second, that the judgment of the Primates in October 2003 was right that these actions would “tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division”. Third, despite this—and the decisions of various Primates Meetings—there has been little or no significant change in how these churches relate to the rest of the Communion through the Instruments.
Despite these arguments that there is really no point in attending, it is also the case that few bishops at this Conference have met together to consider this history and what is to be learned from it. The last Conference was while the Anglican Communion Covenant was still being developed. Those most upset by how this has been handled, especially since the last Conference, would arguably therefore serve their cause best by attending and making clear their concerns and the implications of continuing down this path.
Thirdly, Archbishop Justin’s own actions have at times further undermined confidence in his leadership of the Communion as he has moved the Communion’s response into a more accommodating stance to those making changes in doctrine and practice than his predecessor. The most obvious example of this was highlighted in the Primates’ original letter in these stark words:
It is becoming more apparent that Canterbury, which ought to moderate, mitigate and ensure resolution of the crisis is becoming too tolerant and complicit in the arrogance and errors of the revisionist Anglican Churches in the West. There are indications that homosexual ‘Bishops’ and maybe their spouses have been invited to the forthcoming Lambeth Conference.
In his response there is, rightly, a denial that same-sex spouses have been invited. But there is no acknowledgment that—in contrast to the last Conference when Gene Robinson was not invited—bishops in same-sex marriages have indeed been invited as full participants in this conference. This as I explored at the time (here, here, and here) is unprecedented and a significant change which has never been adequately explained. It is quite understandable that there will be bishops who cannot in good conscience attend because such attendance will be understood by them or by those in their care as an act of ecclesial recognition that other attending are faithful bishops in God’s church. The truth remains that “very many people in the Anglican Communion could neither recognise nor receive the ministry of a bishop in the Church of God of a person in an openly acknowledged same gender union” (The Windsor Report, para 129) and that this decision by Archbishop Justin, in a break with past practice, is unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Anglicans represented by bishops at the Conference.
B. Reassurances in Response to the Three Primates’ Concerns
Especially given this history and some of his own actions as Archbishop, there is a real need, where possible, for Justin to offer reassurances if there is a seriousness about wanting bishops from these three key provinces to attend next month. Here there are at least four areas that could have been helpfully addressed.
Firstly, alongside the more accommodating posture in relation to Lambeth invitations, there has also under Archbishop Justin been a willingness to speak about “consequences” in Communion life for the provinces which have ignored Communion teaching and appeals. This was one of the major outcomes of his first Primates Meeting as Archbishop back in 2016. There has however been little evidence of these being implemented in practice; moreover they were time-limited and have expired with no indication whether that limit has been extended. Were it to be made clear that these consequences remained in force and that the Lambeth Conference would have the opportunity to consider whether and how they might apply to their own proceedings and wider Communion life this would be a welcome sign for those currently determined or tempted to be absent.
Sadly, they appear to have been totally forgotten.
This is despite being the key that proved necessary to unlock the door of what is regularly still referenced as a decision to “walk together”. It is important to recall that phrase was a reference to a “desire” (aware that such a desire may require certain conditions to be fulfilled and could be frustrated). It was also in the context of recognising “significant distance between us” in acknowledgment of which the “consequences” were introduced. “Walking together but at a significant distance” would be a much more honest summary. By its reference to “significant distance” that description also acknowledges one sense of “walking apart” as The Windsor Report made clear would likely follow if, as happened, its recommendations were not accepted.
Secondly, related to this there could have been reassurances that the Communion has still to settle how its common life will have to adapt to this new situation. The Covenant which was the focus of this question at the last Conference in 2008 no longer appears to be a serious option. The GSFA is proceeding with its own covenantal response separate from the formal Instruments. There is, however, no clear sign that these matters, and the deep ecclesiological questions underlying them, are going to be seriously considered at the Conference. A reassurance that these are an important part of the Lambeth agenda and that GAFCON voices are part of the discernment process would have been a significant olive branch that would make it more difficult to justify staying away.
Thirdly, while it is welcome and right to state “The Church of England, has not in any way changed its teaching on marriage or the place of sexual relations”, the reality of the variable practice and discipline within the Church of England, the Living in Love and Faith process, its possible outcomes, and their consequences in the wider Communion, cannot be ignored. This doubtless lies behind concerns of the three Primates and many others in the Global South. Clearly the discernment process later this year cannot be prejudged. It could, however, be stated that this process will be mindful of the wider Communion and that it would greatly benefit Church of England bishops attending Lambeth if they could enter that process having met with the full range of views found among the Communion’s bishops including those from Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda.
Fourthly, there is the question of the status of Lambeth I.10 which is clearly a major concern. The Archbishops’ letter to the Primates states that “Resolution I.10 of the Lambeth Conference in 1998 remains the latest expression of Anglican Communion teaching on the subject” and that “questions of human identity and sexuality will undoubtedly be discussed at the Lambeth Conference” but gives no more detail. There are many who suspect that—in part because of the Church of England LLF discernment process that follows the Conference—an attempt will be made to change the situation so that “the latest expression of Anglican Communion teaching on the subject” will be in some way different which is, of course, another reason why staying away is seen by many as an unwise response.
There are, it is clear, a number of significant questions still unanswered as the long-postponed Lambeth Conference draws near. The historically short duration of the Conference and the lack of information concerning the content of the proposed Calls (which I will address in the next article) will make for a pressured time together given the long-running unresolved tensions and disagreements.
Whatever happens, but especially if many bishops do stay away, one of the challenges will be whether and how the Conference might yet open up new paths of reconciliation to be explored. These cannot avoid addressing the difficult areas explored here as only by doing this can trust be rebuilt on the basis of truth-telling about what has happened and about the deep differences about sexuality and the nature of our Communion.
This article was first published at psephizo.com
Andrew Goddard has been on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum since its launch in 2003. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge (where he was previously Associate Director). He has taught Christian Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol and is also an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico where his wife, Lis, is Vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013) and co-editor with Andrew Atherstone of Good Disagreeement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church (Lion, 2015).