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Lambeth in Retrospect: Part Two

From Archbishop Justin to Today

This two-part essay surveys developments in the Anglican Communion from the 2008 Lambeth Conference to this Summer’s 2022 Lambeth Conference. Part One covered the developments under Rowan Williams’s archepiscopate.

Post-2008 – Archbishop Justin (2013-2016)

One of Archbishop Justin’s priorities on taking office in March 2013 was reconciliation. As part of this he visited every Primate of the Communion in their own province, seeking to try to find a new way forward for the Communion given the collapse of the moratoria and Covenant pillars. The American church had clearly given up its pretense of adhering to the moratoria by continuing to elect same-sex partnered bishops and formally approving rites of same-sex blessing in 2012. It then took the further step of supporting same-sex marriage in 2015 but continued allowing diocesan bishops the right not to permit marriage rites or blessings of covenants in their dioceses until removing it in 2018.

Despite these developments, Archbishop Justin succeeded in bringing together the primates (and the Primate of the ACNA) to a gathering in January 2016, five years after the last meeting. This, seemingly miraculously, charted a way forward concerning “how they would walk together in the grace and love of Christ” and yet acknowledge “the significant distance that remains.” That acknowledgment took the form of making clear and strong statements about the developments in relation to marriage and placing various restrictions for three years on the involvement of the Episcopal Church in the life of the Communion.

A key question is how to relate this major 2016 breakthrough and “unanimous desire to walk together” to the foundation and twin pillars that had gone before and to what has followed since. No mention was made of the Covenant or the Windsor process. Nor was the foundational ecclesiology articulated in those earlier statements explicitly reaffirmed or an alternative offered. All of these have continued to be missing from subsequent statements. Nevertheless, these “consequences” implemented similar proposals to those set out at the end of the Report (as evidence there not of “walking together” but of having “to begin to learn to walk apart”) and in the Covenant (4.2.5-7) for breaches of the Covenant. The language used in paragraphs 5 and 6 concerning changes in relation to marriage clearly located this as in continuity with what had gone before and building on the same foundational and ecumenically shared ecclesiology:

(5) In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion. (6) Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.

From the 2016 Primates’ Meeting to Today

Following this gathering, the Primates have continued to meet regularly (in 2017, twice in 2020, in 2021 and again in 2022) as has the ACC in 2016 and 2019 (where these issues caused tensions) although Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda have not participated. There are, however, major questions as to whether the two paragraphs quoted above continue to be taken seriously as a description of the current life of the Communion and whether there remains a firm commitment to the Communion’s historic foundational ecclesial vision and to securing the necessary new structural pillars on it along the lines of those which the 2016 meeting put in place.

It is now clear (from their actions in relation to questions surrounding same-sex unions and marriage) that the American church (joined by some other provinces) are not committed to that historic, foundational vision of Communion life and wish to stress provincial autonomy instead. It is also now clear that there are new and developing patterns, and instruments, of ecclesial communion within global Anglicanism. This is in part the result of the divisions within North American and other provinces and the associated boundary-crossings: some are not attending this Conference, others are attending but view themselves as in impaired or broken communion with many other bishops present and in fuller communion with other Anglican bishops ministering in those bishops’ locality who have not been invited as evident from recent statements from the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans. All this means that there is now little clarity, let alone consensus, as to what it means to be a Communion.

In addition, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Archbishop Justin has not sought to explain what it means to be a communion of churches. Nor, apart from regular references to “walking together,” (terminology used in the 2018 ARCIC-III statement for how Anglicans and Roman Catholics seek to relate to each other) has he articulated what he discerns to be the mind of the Communion on these matters. He has rarely, if ever, set out the historic vision of living as a worldwide family of interdependent churches in communion with autonomy and accountability as expressed in Windsor and the Covenant. He has not sought to show how the Communion he seeks is being built on that foundation. The 2016 breakthrough appeared to establish new structural pillars involving unity with differentiation on the old foundations after the collapse of the Windsor process and its moratoria and covenant. Since then, however, there are a number of significant but somewhat contradictory signals as to the archbishop’s own approach.

The “consequences” agreed upon in order to acknowledge “the significant distance that remains” were not obviously implemented in meetings of the Instruments and they, and that “significant distance,” are rarely mentioned. Although subsequently extended in 2017 to Scotland when it changed marriage doctrine, the consequences seem not to have formally been applied to Brazil after its 2018 decision. Their implications have not been considered for dioceses which introduce same-sex marriage (as in Canada). The actions of provinces such as Wales which approve same-sex blessings and same-sex partnered bishops have not led to them being held accountable. This could suggest that these developments (which many in the Church of England hope it might follow in 2023 following the current Living in Love and Faith discernment process) are now accepted by the Instruments of Communion and that only changes in relation to marriage create any problems for the Communion’s common life. There has been no extension of the now expired three-year period of an alternative status within the Communion although this continues to prevent those provinces representing the Communion on ecumenical dialogues.

All this raises the question as to whether these “consequences” may have been more of a temporary, pragmatic maneuver in order to get agreement from the primates to “walk together.” Was that statement, with the then-planned 2020 Lambeth Conference on the horizon, akin to those from the American church and JSC in relation to moratoria prior to the 2008 Conference? Or was rather a principled stance finally creating structures which would implement the logical consequences of communion ecclesiology as set out in Windsor and the Covenant?

It is not just the failure to follow through from the 2016 agreement which has left so much unclear. There has been the decision to invite bishops in same-sex marriages as full members of the Lambeth Conference (in contrast to 2008) while not inviting ACNA bishops except as ecumenical partners. This, contrasting with Rowan’s non-invitations and clear statement that attending signaled commitment to the Windsor and covenant vision, means there is not obviously any shared vision of life in communion among the bishops gathering for the Lambeth Conference. It seems to signal a departure from the Windsor and Covenant vision and a differential response to breaches of the moratoria which penalizes those relating to matters of order but does nothing regarding those relating to matters of faith.

These developments in recent years (possibly supported by some of the explanation recently offered in relation to this conference having “Calls”) give credibility to a possible alternative interpretation rather than that of a renewed commitment to the traditional vision. They fit at least as easily into a narrative where the decision has been made to maintain (at whatever cost in terms of Global South unhappiness and even absence) the present membership of the Communion without any significant accountability or differentiation. This means, implicitly if not explicitly, diluting, perhaps even abandoning, the historic vision of interdependent life in communion articulated in Windsor and the Covenant. This vision which had developed since the earliest Lambeth Conferences and become the basis for all external international ecumenical dialogue and action had been warmly welcomed by Cardinal Kasper and others when reaffirmed in the Windsor Report as giving a clear sense who the Anglican Communion was as an ecumenical partner. Whether by default or intentionally, this vision is likely to be replaced by the other main alternative which Windsor and the Covenant rejected: a privileging of autonomy and a wide-ranging category of adiaphora that has no fundamental problem even with same-sex marriage let alone the lesser departures from Communion teaching in the form of same-sex blessings that cast their shadow over the last Lambeth Conference.

It is, however, clear that much, probably most, of the Communion remains dissatisfied with any abandonment of the historic Anglican ecclesial vision. Many of them are willing to act to create new structures that, following the demise of the moratoria and Covenant, ensure this degree of communion is not lost among Anglicans worldwide. For some this involves separation from the work of the Instruments, as seen in Uganda, Rwanda, and Nigeria failing to participate since Lambeth 2008 (with a limited exception at the January 2016 Primates’ Meeting). For most it involves continued participation but seeking to give form to the traditional Anglican vision in new alternative structures enabling deeper communion such as GAFCON and, more closely modeled on the Covenant vision, the renewed Global South Fellowship of Anglicans. These also include Anglicans who have left or been forced out of Communion provinces that have unilaterally abandoned Communion teaching on sexuality and so are not represented in the official Instruments.


As the Lambeth Conference gathers it is clear that it does so in a very different situation from 2008:

  • there is no longer any doubt that American commitments in 2007 were not genuine;
  • the existence of overlapping provinces, each of them recognized as genuinely Anglican by different Communion provinces, is politically and juridically an ecclesial reality;
  • the theological differences are no longer just about same-sex unions but about the Christian doctrine of marriage itself;
  • the two pillars of the Windsor moratoria and Covenant proposals are no longer live options for resolving the difficulties; and
  • the vision of life in communion developed over decades (both internally and ecumenically) and expressed in Windsor and the Covenant, and explicitly presumed to be that of those attending in 2008, is clearly not shared by a significant number of bishops attending.

These circumstances mean it is less clear how this Conference relates to those of the past and what is now meant by the Anglican Communion and collegial episcopal ministry within it, particularly when combined with other factors relating to developments in recent years including:

All these raise questions concerning the extent to which this Lambeth Conference maintains its traditional authority and legitimacy arising from it being, in Archbishop Rowan’s words, “a meeting of the chief pastors and teachers of the Communion, seeking an authoritative common voice.”

This Conference may well represent the last chance for those called to be bishops in churches in full communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury to retrieve something of what the Communion has been historically. A key question it faces is: how can it convincingly re-establish its continuity with past Conferences which shared the ecclesial vision set out in Windsor and the Covenant and how can it then, developing those agreed by the Primates in 2016, help set in place new structural pillars to secure that vision?

If the Archbishop of Canterbury and others do not wish to maintain such a vision, then this Conference gives an opportunity for them to make that clear and articulate an alternative way forward. That alternative may continue to attract many of the provinces and result in an Anglican Communion with a shared history but a new, shallower understanding of communion life and the role of the Instruments. All the signs are, however, that the historic Anglican vision of deepening communion in truth and fellowship continues to inspire many. If not through Lambeth and the current Instruments then through the Global South and GAFCON it appears that vision will likely take visible form and significantly shape global Anglicanism between now and whenever the next Lambeth Conference happens.


  1. Thank you for these clear review essays. In some ways it is hard to read them, given the amount of work once invested during the previous ABC’s tenure. You have chronicled this well. You will know my view that the role being requested of +RW from the wider Communion (and Instruments) was never likely one the CofE would get behind, and the vote against the covenant there was fateful in demonstrating this.

    “how can it convincingly re-establish its continuity with past Conferences which shared the ecclesial vision set out in Windsor and the Covenant and how can it then, developing those agreed by the Primates in 2016, help set in place new structural pillars to secure that vision?”

    Does it even see this as remotely relevant to its new life? What you term the ‘federal’ option has simply won out, so far as the present ABC”s role goes. It is the default setting.

    Again, thank you for this honest and valuable review. Having worked alongside you and others I remain grateful for the effort expended. It was almost surprising to see Windsor referred to recently by Prof Sonderegger, given where we now find ourselves. Perhaps its core principles and vision will live on post Lambeth, for an Anglican Communion God wishes to preserve. Time is in HIs hands. It would certainly be helpful for ecumenical relations as well.


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