Analysis by Kirk Petersen
The organizers of the Lambeth Conference were clearly keen to focus on spiritual topics and issues that are mission-critical for the Church and for the world. The videotaped “Bishops’ Conversations” that began circulating a year before the event bore titles such as “Called Into Hope and Holiness” and “Called to Humble Ourselves.” There was little or no mention of the disputes over human sexuality that have split the Anglican Communion.
But any hope that the 15th Lambeth Conference would be remembered for substance and spirituality, rather than process and conflict, has been undercut by unforced errors and a profound lack of transparency.
The conference is considering “Lambeth Calls” rather than “resolutions,” a recognition that past resolutions have not been binding and have not resolved anything. As the bishops prepare for a crucial-but-private August 2 confrontation regarding a Call under the bland banner of “Human Dignity,” the logistics and potential consequences of the discussion are shrouded in confusion.
After months of relative calm leading up to Lambeth, the issue exploded in July because of a single ill-advised passage on page 32 of a 58-page study document, which included a declaration that “It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same-gender marriage is not permissible.” A legalistic argument can be made that the statement is intellectually defensible, if “the mind … as a whole” can be determined by a simple majority. But the statement implies a lack of widespread dissent, which is not correct.
It’s not clear who added the passage, but it was added late in the process, and was not discussed by the entire working group that developed the call, according to Kevin Robertson, a suffragan bishop in Toronto and a member of the working group.
Criticism has been mounting. On August 1, a prominent conservative theologian released a scathing, 5,400-word summary of the rushed and secretive process of making changes to the language of the calls. (Later in the day, the process appeared to change yet again, about which more below.)
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Goddard is a parish priest, a longtime ethics professor, and an Evangelical Anglican who participated in developing the Church of England’s 2020 Living in Love and Faith teaching resources on sexuality. Readers interested in following all the twists and turns can read Goddard’s document, or TLC’s coverage of the Lambeth Calls process that has led to a eucharistic boycott.
Here is Goddard’s description of the state of play as of early August 1 — Day 6 of the 12-day conference:
So it appears that, by a circuitous and confusing route, the “beautiful, exciting moment of hearing God’s call to us” in which “the Lambeth Conference in 2022 is going to make decisions” has moved away from a discernment process with options to adopt or adapt and the bishops shaping the call and voting on sections of each one to become literally a shouting match in a room of hundreds of bishops who can only yell for or against a text which has been delivered to them by a small group of unidentified individuals. If approved, this text will then “become part of the official report of the Conference” although there appears to be a mysterious “group working on Phase 3 of the Conference” who, in the light of the feedback from groups may presumably revise the calls further after the Conference has dispersed.
One may quibble with his tone or sentence structure, but Goddard has carefully documented every factual element of his indictment.
In the subsequent discussion on the Call on Anglican Identity, the discussion leader took a series of “straw polls” on the four specific recommendations made in the Call document. The content of the recommendations will be covered in a separate article — the purpose of this discussion is to show how the process is being created on the fly.
Archbishop of New Zealand Philip Richardson reported at a press conference that there was “a lot of energy” behind one of the four recommendations on Anglican Identity, and none whatsoever behind another one. As for the other two, “certainly on voices,” Richardson said, “they probably both received a kind of negative response, but visually, watching the hands that went up, I don’t think it was quite so clear-cut.”
Reporters pressed for information about the consequence of the straw polls — specifically, which of the four recommendations would be “passed along” to the global Communion as representing the thinking of the Lambeth Conference. The only clear response was that whatever “final” document is issued will not actually be final. Outgoing Secretary-General Josiah Idowu-Fearon told the reporters that “Each bishop will be expected to take [the Call] back to her or his diocese” for discussion. “It’s not that this is a done deal. The dioceses will be given the opportunity to actually see what is here, and then see how they can live it out,” he said. Anglican Communion Director of Communications Gavin Drake said that after the conclusion of the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury will designate “a group to take the Calls into the next phase, and part of that will be to take all the feedback from the table” discussions.
None of this bodes well for the prospect of reconciliation among the factions of the 41-province Anglican Communion. Throughout his tenure, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has sought to downplay the conflict, even postponing the decennial Lambeth Conference from 2018 to 2020 in the hope of lowering the temperature. The event was then postponed for another two years because of the pandemic. But partisans on both sides have dug in deep.
Anglicanism was born in England, but at least half of the world’s Anglicans now live in Africa, where homosexuality is still a crime in many countries. Two of the three largest provinces in the world, Nigeria and Uganda, have boycotted both this Lambeth Conference and the 2008 conference. Of the African and conservative bishops who are in attendance, many refused to take Communion at the opening service.
The study document that ignited the current phase of the conflict in July cited Resolution I.10 from Lambeth 1998, which calls for “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture.” Conservatives note that the resolution has been reaffirmed by other Anglican bodies on multiple occasions, and they consider it the official policy of the Anglican Communion. Liberals consider the resolution abhorrent and not binding, and they simply ignore it.
A quarter century ago, Resolution I.10 passed by a vote of 526-70 — but that was before same-sex marriage was legal anywhere in the world. A vote at this year’s Lambeth would no doubt be much closer — but we may never know, as voting was scrapped after a single, non-controversial vote on a Lambeth Call focused on evangelism. No reason has been given for making the change — more of the lack of transparency that Goddard documented at length. But the effect of the change will be that neither side will be able to claim victory based on a vote.
Opinions differ on which side would “win” a vote at this Lambeth Conference. But the uncertainty exists solely because of the boycott by Nigeria, Uganda, and others. If it were possible to poll every Anglican bishop in the world, a majority undoubtedly would reaffirm Resolution I.10. A vote by every bishop in the Episcopal Church would be even more lopsided in the opposite direction, illustrating a chasm that shows no signs of closing.