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Lambeth in Retrospect: Part One

From Archbishop Rowan to Archbishop Justin

By Andrew Goddard

The Lambeth Conference will gather in late July for the first time in 14 years, a gap between Conferences second only to the one between 1930 and 1948 due to the Second World War. One of the consequences of this is that many of the bishops present will not have been at the previous Conference in 2008. Justin Welby, for example, was not consecrated until 2011. In the maelstrom of Communion politics it is easy to lose track of what has happened and when. It is easy to forget how things appeared at different times, even at crucial times such as Lambeth Conferences. As a result it is easy to lose any sense of a coherent narrative.

It is therefore important to stop and recall where things stood at that last Conference in relation to Anglican views on sexuality and understanding of what it means to be a communion of churches within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. In the light of that we can then try to make sense of, and honestly assess, what has developed since then under Archbishops Rowan and Justin. This in turn helps us understand better what this Conference now faces and the possible futures of the Communion.

Before Lambeth 2008 (2003-2008)

Midway between the previous Conference of 1998 (which passed Resolution I.10 on human sexuality) and the 2008 Conference, the Communion hit the rocks. The presenting issues were the 2003 authorization of a liturgy to bless same-sex unions in Canada’s New Westminster diocese and the election and then consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. These were preceded by the irregular consecration in 2000 of two conservative American priests as bishops and the creation of a new ecclesial body (Anglican Mission in America, AMiA) by the Primates of Rwanda and South East Asia.

Prior to Robinson’s consecration the primates had starkly warned that if it occurred “the future of the Communion itself will be put in jeopardy” as “the ministry of this one bishop will not be recognised by most of the Anglican world, and many provinces are likely to consider themselves to be out of Communion with the Episcopal Church (USA).” This, they said, “will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level.”

The Commission they established produced The Windsor Report in October 2004. Its four sections can be thought as offering a solid theological and ecclesial foundation and two key structural pillars for the Communion:

  1. a summary of the already well-established Anglican ecclesiological vision of life in communion developed since 1867 and shaped by the Patristic and Orthodox models and ecumenical agreements (Sections A and B),
  2. a proposal as to how this vision could shape the Communion including the articulation of that vision through the development of an inter-provincial covenant (Section C),
  3. recommendations, based on that vision, to prevent further damage in the form of calls for moratoria on blessings, consecrations of bishops in same-sex unions, and cross-border interventions (Section D).

It warned in its final paragraph that “should the call to halt and find ways of continuing in our present communion not be heeded, then we shall have to begin to learn to walk apart.”

A number of key developments in relation to each of these three areas set the scene for the bishops gathered in 2008 and are best summarized in reverse order to that set out above. They reveal a very different world from that we are now in.

Initially, most effort was, inevitably and rightly, put into facing the immediate problem by seeking to implement the moratoria. Those with formal responsibilities in the structures of the Communion were determined to secure agreement on the moratoria by TEC and move out of the crisis. The Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and ACC (JSC) sought to persuade the Primates Meeting in Tanzania in February 2007 that this had been achieved but the primates concluded that there was a “lack of clarity” and so were “not persuaded … that we are yet in a position to recognise that The Episcopal Church has mended its broken relationships” (para 24). They commended those Anglicans in the US who (in “the Camp Allen principles”) supported the Windsor proposals (para 25, these were the pre-cursor of the current Communion Partners) and offered a way forward (“A Pastoral Scheme”). This sought to end boundary-crossing and enable what could be described as the highest possible degree of communion but with some visible differentiation. This was swiftly rejected by the U.S. church.

After the American bishops met with Archbishop Rowan and the JSC in September 2007 they issued a statement which the JSC concluded (with dissent only from Archbishop Mouneer Anis, Primate of the Middle East) had “given the necessary assurance sought of them.” It claimed that the Episcopal Church and the Instruments of Communion “speak with one voice” in holding that

while it is inappropriate to proceed to public Rites of Blessing of same-sex unions and to the consecration of bishops who are living in sexual relationships outside of Christian marriage, we need to take seriously our ministry to gay and lesbian people inside the Church and the ending of discrimination, persecution and violence against them.

However, a survey of primates showed they remained deeply divided over whether this claim that the American bishops had indeed responded positively was true. Archbishop Rowan wrote in his important 2007 Advent letter that “we have no consensus.” In the face of this stalemate a number of provinces, unhappy with the lack of a clear Communion response, prepared the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) which met in Jerusalem in June 2008 and issued the Jerusalem Declaration and wider Statement. Many of the bishops who attended this refused to then attend the Lambeth Conference the following month.

In relation to the second pillar, work began on the Anglican Communion Covenant in early 2007, and one of the main items for the Conference was the second draft (known as the St Andrew’s Draft) produced in January 2008. Archbishop Rowan also made clear in his Advent letter (referring to Gene Robinson and irregularly consecrated bishops serving in America), that “I have not felt able to invite [to the Lambeth Conference] those whose episcopal ordination was carried through against the counsel of the Instruments of Communion.” This followed the Windsor Report’s conclusion that the Archbishop of Canterbury, having the historic right both to convene and preside at the Conference, thus

has the right to call or not to call to these gatherings whomsoever he believes is appropriate, in order to safeguard, and take counsel for, the well-being of the Anglican Communion. The Commission believes that in the exercise of this right the Archbishop of Canterbury should invite participants to the Lambeth Conference on restricted terms at his sole discretion if circumstances exist where full voting membership of the Conference is perceived to be an undesirable status, or would militate against the greater unity of the Communion. (para 110)

Thirdly, Archbishop Rowan explained that the Conference was intended “not [as] a canonical tribunal, but neither is it merely a general consultation. It is a meeting of the chief pastors and teachers of the Communion, seeking an authoritative common voice. It is also a meeting designed to strengthen and deepen the sense of what the episcopal vocation is” (italics added). He wrote  in terms of building on the foundation laid by the Windsor Report and securing its twin pillars and his Advent letter made clear that a bishop’s acceptance of the invitation “must be taken as implying willingness to work with those aspects of the Conference’s agenda that relate to implementing the recommendations of Windsor, including the development of a Covenant” (italics original).

The Conference itself, styled as an indaba, passed no resolutions with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s multiple contributions being the main public pronouncements (five retreat addresses,  along with Presidential Addresses). These often set out a vision of life in Communion, as in his third concluding Presidential Address. The officially published Reflections reported discussions on “Strengthening Anglican Identity” including “Anglican Bishops, Anglican Identity” (paras 100-104), sexuality (105-20), Scriptures (121-135) the covenant (136-144, ending with “a willingness to continue exploring a Covenant together”) and the Windsor Process (145-151) which reported “widespread support for the moratoria across the Communion” noting “the moratoria will be difficult to uphold, although there is a desire to do so from all quarters. … If the Windsor process is to be honoured, all three moratoria must be applied consistently.”

Post-2008 – Archbishop Rowan (2008-2012)

In the four remaining years of his time in office, Archbishop Rowan saw the two main Windsor pillars collapse.

First, as the Windsor Continuation Group continued to try to progress its proposals and the primates met in Alexandria in February 2009 and the ACC in Jamaica in May 2009, the 2007 argument that the American church’s statements were a genuine and credible positive response to the Windsor moratoria was shown to be wrong. The first sign of this was actions of the 2009 General Convention (particularly resolution D025). It then became clear that Archbishop Rowan’s trust in the American bishops’ 2007 commitment (“I do not see how the commitment not to confirm any election to the episcopate of a partnered gay or lesbian person can mean anything other than what it says”) was misplaced with the election of Mary Glasspool, in a same-sex relationship since 1988, as bishop in December 2009, consents being given in March 2010 and her consecration occurring in May 2010. Against this backdrop, Archbishop Rowan’s final Primates Meeting in Dublin in January 2011 saw many primates refusing to attend.

Alongside this, in relation to the other moratorium, in June 2009 most of the churches that had left the American and Canadian churches (receiving oversight from, and/or having bishops consecrated by, other provinces) formed the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) with nine Communion provinces officially represented at its launch. This development had already been approved by GAFCON in December 2008 and again in April 2009. The wider Global South movement would also support the ACNA — and the Communion Partners within TEC — in Singapore in April 2010 (offering a fuller history and statement of continued “full communion” in 2017). This ended cross-border interventions in the sense of Communion provinces providing oversight in another historically constituted Communion province. It did so, however, by them recognizing an alternative Anglican province rather than the Communion province.

Second, a text of the Anglican Communion Covenant was finally agreed upon in late 2009 setting out the theological and ecclesial vision of life in communion articulated in Windsor. This held out the prospect of enabling either a renewed unity around its shared vision or, more likely, an orderly differentiation within the wider Communion between covenanting and non-covenanting churches as Archbishop Rowan had described in his important 2006 reflection on being Anglican. The former group would include those committed to the traditional Anglican vision of interdependent churches seeking to be mutually accountable and now able to put this into practice and intensify accountability through the covenant. The latter would be those looking for a looser form of relationship (what some called a Federation) which privileged provincial autonomy. Although initially supported by the Church of England General Synod, the Covenant then faced major opposition in Diocesan Synods. In March 2012 (shortly after the announcement of Rowan’s retirement), a majority of them rejected it, making it impossible for the Church of England to subscribe.

In the words of a senior Church of England bishop in 2013 as Justin Welby took office, reflecting on Archbishop Rowan’s experience of the Communion: “In assessing Rowan’s ministry I think we have to be realistic about the extraordinary adverse situation in which he found himself.” His major weakness was, the bishop commented, “an incapacity to work the miracle of changing the attitudes of so many people who were determined to wreck whatever good initiatives were put forward.”

Part two of this essay will survey developments in Justin Welby’s archepiscopate.


  1. The covenant was a huge mistake. Rowan should have recognized the reality that the Anglican Communion is not Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Provinces that have more democratic processes were never going to accept the decrees of authoritative men thousands of miles away. Never. Ever. Honestly, anything all male is a nonstarter in some provinces, as it should be.


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