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Comparing Lambeth 2022 with 2008: A Bishop’s Reflections

By Christopher Cocksworth

The 2022 Lambeth Conference was a very different experience for me than the 2008 Conference. I was ordained bishop shortly before the last Conference. Since my episcopal ordination took place in London, I had not yet stepped into the Diocese of Coventry as its bishop before heading off to Canterbury. I was bishop in name and law but in ministry and experience I was in serious deficit. And it showed. The Conference confirmed in practice what I knew in theory. Bishops are made to serve the people of God and their mission in Christ in a particular place. Without their people and the network of relationships with the people, history, culture, economics, and geography into which they become embedded, bishops are of little worth.

Fourteen years on, I was able to bring the Diocese of Coventry with me, not only in heart and prayer, and not only in sharing with and learning from other bishops across the world, but in the fuller sense of what the Church of England Common Worship Ordinal describes as “the Church in each place and time [being] united with the Church in every place and time,” through the ministry of its bishops. We were there not only as Christians bound together through our faith in Christ, and not only as individual ministers of the gospel of Christ committed to the work of the kingdom of God, but as bearers or carriers of churches embodying in some real way the life and apostolic calling of those churches in their different world-contexts.

As well as being taken deeper into what it means to be a bishop in the Church of God, I also learned more of what the Lambeth Conference means to the life of the Anglican Communion. Essentially, the Church is relational. The Conference was that part of the Church manifested as the Anglican Communion being the Communion — or, rather, becoming more fully the Communion, because our being is always in the process of becoming. I saw more clearly how the relationality of the Communion involves relationship with the physical space of Canterbury Cathedral (as some sort of maternal home, awesome in its proportions and history); with the actual person of the Archbishop of Canterbury (as a generous and loving host, gifted in this case with an extraordinary energy); with each other (as called and sent by God to our people and places, gathered together now in this place and with this person for the building up of our common life); with brothers and sisters from other churches and communions (whose fellowship and wisdom beckoned us beyond ourselves into a bigger vision of the church); with Jesus Christ, in the Spirit, and his relationship with the Father (greatly helped by some wonderful liturgies and inspired music).

As with Conferences past, I suspect a highlight for most bishops was the small-group experience of the Bible studies. My group — South Sudan, Philippines, Sierra Leone, US, and England — was faith-building, joy-giving, knee-bending, and tear-jerking. To gather around the ancient texts of Scripture brought alive by the Spirit of truth speaking through the testimony of contemporary churches, so different in their situations yet so similar in their desire to follow Christ, was a humbling example of “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” being “made known — through the Church — to the rulers and principalities” (Eph. 3:10).

The larger group gatherings, from the plenary presentations of the Lambeth Calls to the seminars, were personally edifying, in the way that conferences at their best are good learning experiences. They were also ecclesially enriching because this conference taught us from a world-church perspective about missionary challenges, disciple making, environmental imperatives, safeguarding necessities, reconciliation possibilities, prospects for inter-church unity, complexities of inter-religious engagement, and questions of human dignity; and then made us think about what it all means for Anglican identity.

What the Conference was not so good at was enabling the proper episcopal oversight and leadership of the Communion that, at least until 2008, belonged to the character if not necessarily the constitution of the Lambeth Conference. That incapacity showed itself in the process for drafting, refining, and affirming the Lambeth Calls. We were presented with immature texts. I do not mean that they were of poor quality (though some were certainly better than others); rather that they had not been through the sort of maturation process that such agreed statements require. There was certainly no credible process for developing them during the Conference, and the appeal to a third stage of the Conference after the residential period felt like a missed opportunity.

It may well be that, given the size of the Communion and the constraints of time and language on the Conference itself, the Lambeth Conference cannot be expected to fulfill both the relational-educational role and the discussing, deliberating, deciding function that belongs to the ministry of bishops if they are to be used by God to form the church (again in the words of the Church of England Ordinal) “into a single communion of faith and love.” I hope that work is beginning now on a new structure and shape of the Lambeth Conference that allows both roles to be fulfilled.

As well as a lot to learn about the ministry of a bishop and the function of the Lambeth Conference, there was also much to stimulate one’s thinking about the Anglican Communion itself. I was left with three main conclusions. First, the Communion is a remarkable reality in the purposes of God: it is a privilege to be part of it. Second, it is fragile and damaged: the absence of hundreds of bishops in 2008 and 2020 was a serious loss, and the broken communion evident in the Conference Eucharists exposed more wounds for all to see. Third, the Communion is still evolving: as it evolves there is an opportunity of grace to preserve its life, promote its mission under God, and address its problems. The Conference raised several matters that require some deep ecclesiological thought.

One of those matters, perhaps the most general and generic, is that, even to this English bishop, the Conference — and hence the Communion — felt too English. How is the relationship between the Communion and Canterbury (culture, provincial church, cathedral, and archbishop) to be expressed and embodied in the future? Other matters include the application of subsidiarity to Anglican ecclesiology, and how this relates to earlier Anglican commitments to mutual responsibility and to the implications of interdependence in so far as they touch substantive doctrine. Those in turn relate to questions of reception — a theme handled poorly in the Human Dignity Call but more promisingly in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech on the occasion of that Call about “truth and unity” and how it “sometimes takes a very long time to reach a point where different teaching is rejected or received.”

As the Communique from the Global South identified, there is much for the primates to consider when they next meet about how long that time is allowed to be and how it is handled. I hope that they will make good use of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) to help them design responsible reception processes for the necessary determinations and the shape of the Communion while they are taking place. If that work is done well, the Anglican Communion will be well placed for the next Lambeth Conference.

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