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The Purpose of Lambeth and Staying Away

See our other essays on Lambeth 2020 here.

By Ephraim Radner

The Anglican Communion is hurtling, like a train without brakes, toward the Lambeth Conference in 2020. What happens when it crashes into the conference is anybody’s guess. The missing brakes in question amount to a clear sense of purpose for the conference and a clear rationale for participating in it. Both appear to be missing. Since no one really knows why hundreds of Anglican bishops should gather together, no one can really say who should come; and finally, for lack of common clarity on both issues, the conference threatens to be but a gathering of disordered and vying hopes and resentments. What we are seeing at the moment are open letters, protests, and general anxiety.

I recently proposed some imaginary resolutions that the 2020 conference might adopt (“Cleaning up the Playing Field: Six Resolutions for Lambeth”). They involved a common public position on sexuality, marriage, and human respect; a recommendation to desist from intra-ecclesial disciplinary purges; and a commitment to being accountable for reconciliation among hostile member churches. None of these imaginary resolutions was aimed at articulating the conference’s purpose or clarifying attendance. They were imagined, rather, as preparatory to such work, something that might happen in the future. Nonetheless, embedded in these imaginary resolutions were implications about where such work might end up. What were these implications?

There is little tied up in Anglican polity that might make a gathering of hundreds of bishops plus spouses particularly compelling. In the past couple of decades, we have had it drilled into us that Anglican churches are legally autonomous in almost every way. Each can do as it pleases, and each mostly does. Nothing comes out of a Lambeth Conference, apparently, that actually orders the life of participating churches, certainly not in a way that members of these churches notice. This holds for African provinces as much as it does for the Church of England. All the talk of the enriching and strengthening character of the Communion’s diverse common life is mostly Pablum: the “bonds of affection” made so much of have generally come down to money and influence, along with the undeniable psychological profit of justifying oneself in a public arena enlarged by global observers.

The issue, then, is not the nature of the Lambeth Conference, but the nature of Christian gathering more fundamentally.

Why do Christians gather? The answer is straightforward: Christians are impelled to gather because they are in fact part of one body, the body of Christ. That is built into their baptism (1 Cor. 12:13), and it defines the Church as whole. Gathering is not only an expression of this reality; it constitutes this reality in a practical fashion.

The great texts of 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and more are quite explicit here, and no one has ever doubted this bedrock truth. Gathering involves a number of bodily actions: learning the truth and believing it together, praying together, praising God together, celebrating the Eucharist together, sharing goods (cf. Acts. 2:42-45). Conversely, when Christians either refuse to gather or somehow subvert such gathering — that is, when gathering in prayer, worship, mutual aid, belief, or counsel are undermined — they are fighting against and even denying the truth of Christ. St. Paul’s teaching that such subversion of gathering is a terrible divine judgment is thus a matter of logic as much as anything (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27, 19)

Such gathering and all the shaping of human life that goes into it are not just a matter of being true to our common nature. They are a proclamation, an announcement of the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, before the world (cf. Eph. 3:10), exalting his Name to the glory of the Father. To gather faithfully, in the name of Jesus, given all the obstacles of sin before such gathering, is to embody the life of divine grace as an act of cosmic witness and praise.

Anglicans assume this purpose, whether they fulfill it or not, for even if Anglican polity has no need of such gathering, that it has bishops at all implies this purpose. Any church with bishops by definition has in fact agreed to this purpose, since bishops exist as extensions of the apostolic character of the Catholic Church. They aid in “making perfect” and “edifying” the whole Church (as earlier ordination services put it, drawing from Ephesians), and “being at one with the apostles” and “sharing in the leadership of the church throughout the world,” in line with “patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs” of “every age,” as more prayer-book revisions explicate.

At the least, then, we can say that a Lambeth Conference has a purpose that it shares with the larger Church of Christ: to gather as the body as fully as possible in the acts that constitute Christian gathering, through its bishops, thereby enacting a unity across space and time for the sake of presenting the gospel before the world. Anything less than that would be a failure and, given the divine trust involved, a grievous one before God.

The potential train wreck of the Communion at the Lambeth Conference is driven by an unwillingness to take any of this seriously. Here we come to the question: Who should attend? After all, subversion of Christian gathering in its evangelical purpose and practices is something to be avoided, on the basis of substantive moral integrity, and thus of gospel witness.

St. Paul dealt with this over and over. In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 he commends putting aside one’s sense of right for the sake of weaker brethren. In 1 Corinthians 9 he speaks of giving up his rights as an apostle for the sake of sharing the gospel with others. In 1 Corinthians 11, in the face of Christians who cannot wait for one another, he suggests that it is better not to take part in the Eucharist at all if such participation involves “not discerning the body.” Always, Paul urges that Christians think of other Christians as better than they, as people to be deferred to (cf. Rom. 15:1-2).

This way of looking at things seems to cohere directly with Jesus’ strong counsel about not giving offense to the “little ones” (cf. Matt. 18:6-11). And, of course, this is all connected to the reality of Jesus’ actions, which the ecclesial body is to present before the world; it was Jesus, after all, who “did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3), gave up his “own interests,” and “emptied himself” into an obedience unto death for others (Phil. 2:4-11).

If none of this is possible for the Church — and as of now, it is not — we bring only judgment upon ourselves, especially if we pretend otherwise.

One way to address our careening Communion, then, might be for those who cannot now follow this way of Christ to stay home. We are well aware of those who have pressed “their own rights” or “their own way” in the past — whether legal or not in local ecclesial terms — over and against the broader wishes of the gathered Church. If they simply desisted from any further gathering, perhaps the first steps to strengthening the body might be made. Those who might decide not to attend the Lambeth Conference in this light would include leaders of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican churches of Canada, Nigeria, and Uganda, and perhaps others.

Stay away from Lambeth. Get your own house and heart in order. Work out disputes with others (including those in your midst) in a personal, humble, and dedicated way. Press for reconciliation with those whom you have wronged or who feel wronged by you. Learn to gather rightly. But do this work now, before dragging disputes into the midst of the Communion.

One might perhaps ask why such reconciliation cannot be forged at the conference. Isn’t such a gathering just the place to work out division? Why then stay away?

There is a simple practical reason: in any politics, negotiation demands that participants give something up even before they open their mouths in discussion. Attending the conference — that is, gathering the Church — presupposes sacrifice from the start. This has not yet happened. Thus, I make the suggestion not on the basis of some imposed discipline, or principled boycott, or symbolic protest.

Rather, I urge these churches — including all their bishops, whether conservative, liberal, or indifferent — to withdraw from the Conference voluntarily, in an initiating posture of humility. Such self-discipline would be an act of hope, perhaps even of a converting power. From such a posture, all kinds of blessings are likely to flow. The only reason to meet, after all, is to be the Church of Christ’s body in order to show the world the gospel of the Lord Jesus, who “became a slave” (Phil. 2:7) for others. Only those ready to follow just this path should make the long trek to Canterbury.



  1. a (too long) while back at sunday eucharist i was praying for the people around me, to discern their gifts and understand our places together in the body. when suddenly, deeply, i remembered all those who had left, how much was missing. limbs and eyes and organs. an episcopal election had just happened that would seemingly dig us deeper in our divisions, but instead of a posture of mourning as we moved forward… so many of the diocese’s clergy and lay people… well they were buoyed. they had sent a message.
    the message is that we’re broken, i thought it was so flagrant we would have to attempt to reconcile. i stayed back, expecting others might too. i had no idea how it would happen, but i thought something would have to. that we wouldn’t mime communion where we had turned aganst it. bishops at Lambeth or layfolk home at st paul’s.

  2. The theology of the Body and why Christians gather is excellent in this piece. But I really don’t get the alarmism of Lambeth as a train wreck. It’s the first Lambeth since I joined the Anglican tradition, and I am so excited about it. I’ve been reading the resolutions from Lambeth 1988, and have been in awe at the tremendous wisdom that has come out of these gatherings. I hope they do gather, and I look forward to the wisdom that comes from it.

    • I believe the point is that major swathes will NOT be gathering, and that this bespeaks a situation in which the point of Lambeth Conference is no longer clear.

      You also assume there will be “wisdom coming from it” but in what form would you conceive of that? If resolutions from 1988 excite you, you can be certain that those days are over. Indeed, resolving things is precisely NOT what this Lambeth conference is about and that by design.

      This isn’t alarmism. It is now baked in.

  3. How I agree with your arguments! As one of the managers at 2008 Lambeth, I have found the rehearsing of all the concerns and issues surrounding attendance in 2020 depressingly familiar. In 2007, the question was ‘how many?’ and ‘why not?’ and being witness to the agonizing of the host, one longed for a more honest understanding of ‘bonds of communion’ and a commitment to them by non attenders!


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