Over the next few days, there is a possibility that you will hear in the news something about the Anglican Communion saying…something. Or not saying something. Or doing something. And that, when you hear this, you will think, “Huh. Isn’t that us? I wonder what’s going on.”
Here’s what’s going on!
The Archbishop of Canterbury (currently, a guy named Justin Welby and his ill-fitting collar) has the authority within our Anglican Communion to call Lambeth Conference—a global meeting of all the active bishops in the Anglican Communion. This is really the only authority he has outside of the Church of England itself, and it is a recent development, all things considered. The first Lambeth Conference was in the late 1880s, when it became clear to the English bishops that the colonial endeavors of their nation had led to the spread of their church such that it had grown far past the stage where everyone knew everyone else from Oxford. Thus, the ++ABC of the time convened a conference and invited all the bishops to tea at the palace.2
And this—and literally only this—has been what held the Anglican Communion together for these many years. The Lambeth Conference has been convened more or less every ten years, and if your bishop is invited, then behold! You too are a member of the Anglican Communion.3
Traditionally, while assembled, the bishops do not make pronouncements or take any sort of action—as one province of the Communion has no power over another, neither does one bishop have power over another province. This gained the semblance of changedness in 1998, when the assembled bishops voted out a statement on human sexuality. The statement was controversial at the time, and has only gotten more so. It stated that “marriage is between one man and one woman” and that “homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture.” At the time, this was not a statement that all the bishops agreed to, nor was it passed overwhelmingly. However, as soon as it was passed, it began to be referred to as if it was authoritative in some way—which led to the already-present conflict growing deeper4.
Right now, the Conference has not met since 2008. It was intended to meet in 2020, but the pandemic scuttled those plans. For the past few years, the current ++ABC has taken pains to rebuild the Communion, and has been explaining the conference as a peaceful time to be together, promising no voting, no controversy—only togetherness, prayer, Bible study, and reflection.
Roughly a week before the conference started, a 58-page document called Lambeth Calls ended up in the hands of every bishop attendee, with a notification that the bishops would be asked to vote upon its 10 included statements, on topics from Climate Change, Gender Equity, to Human Dignity. A bishop could vote “i affirm this call and will take action upon it in my context” or “I commit to further discernment”. There was no opportunity to vote “No.” While the writing groups for the calls were described as diverse within the document itself, only the lead drafters were named, and they were all male, and all but one were English.
Included in the calls, in the Human Dignity call, was an explicit reaffirmation of the 1998 document that stated “marriage is between one man and one woman” as “being the mind of the Anglican Communion.”
This was received….poorly.
The majority of our American bishops had already left for Europe, and so mostly hadn’t checked email. However, for the first time in Lambeth Tea Party Messiness, the Scottish bishops and the Welsh bishops (both churches having affirmed gay marriage since 2008) stepped in to release statements saying that they would be calling for a rewrite, and also what on earth was any of this5.
A day or so later, a Canadian bishop announced on Facebook that in fact, he had been one of the drafters of the statement on Human Dignity, and that he did not recognize the version of the statement that had been published. That in fact, the final draft he saw did not include a reaffirmation of the 1998 statement, because he would have raised holy hell.
This revelation led to another round of additional bishops (who were now coming back into email range from their travels) asking what the heck kind of process any of this was, and stating their firm annoyance with whoever was responsible.
The Conference coordinating subgroup then released a rewrite of the offending call, and offered a way to vote “This call does not speak for me” as “a response to the feedback we have received”—both of which are decided improvements, but do not provide clarity on the process, why the voting returned in the first place, or why Lambeth thinks it can make pronouncements at all.
That is where we currently are, as of 2:30pm on July 27th.
It is unclear to me why, having achieved at least a baseline level of compliance from a majority of bishops, ++Justin wanted to suddenly strive to unify them all in distrust of what he was doing. Aside from the (incredibly bad idea) of reintroducing 1998’s statement on marriage, it’s bad leadership to scrap a process you had been advertising for literally years, a week ahead of an international conference. Whatever the goal is, unless it is to unify the worldwide bishops in frustration with him, ++Justin seems as capable at achieving it as he is at wearing a collar that fits.
On gay marriage: I also don’t know what the goal could be here. No matter what Lambeth ends up doing, or voting, or discussing, or meditating on—the Episcopal Church, the Scottish Church, the New Zealand church, and the other provinces who have so discerned will have same-gender marriage. That horse has left the barn. We have seen the Spirit moving and so have enlarged our understanding of God’s grace alive in the sacraments of the church. Will other provinces follow us? I don’t know! They get to sort that out. I can’t force them to do anything. In fact, as a female priest, I can’t even force them to recognize my ordination, so I find it downright curious when conservative male priests talk about how we are “forcing gay marriage on the world”. (Really. Would you like a list of the MANY PROVINCES that do not have women clergy, and would not allow me to stand at an altar?)
At its (yet-to-be-achieved) best, the Anglican Communion is this group of autonomous churches that have a common history, and freely choose to claim one another, for no other reason than that we believe Christ has given us to each other. We disagree on a lot (a. Lot.). but we choose to cooperate where we can, for the sake of each other and the world. Voting, and unpredictable processes, ultimately doesn’t help any of that, but I am not the Archbishop of Canterbury, so I am not in charge.
What does help that is partnering with folks around the world and praying for each other, and building friendships with other people around the world, built on stuff we care about. Refusing to abandon one another, even when other people make decisions we disagree with. Gently reminding one another that even when we disagree (especially when we disagree) we aren’t leaving, and we’re going to have to deal with each other.
Harder–yet more fruitful.
2 Literally. I’m not making this up.
3 No, do not start about the 39 Articles or the 1662 BCP. Neither one ever held sway in the Episcopal Church, and we can discuss that later. Right now, we are discussing Lambeth Tea Parties.
4 The conflict at the heart of the Anglican Communion has been over colonialism and authority. It is not really over gay people, women, or how to read the Bible–and this is a hill I will die on. The conflict is over who gets to tell anyone else what to do, and how we are in relationship with each other. Remember, for most of its history, the Anglican Communion just was the British Empire. Now that everyone has departed that empire, what are we to one another? We have yet to really nail that down in practice.
5. Said statements in early drafts possibly also included aspersions such as “Typical English arrogance,” “Not being funny or anything, but this is why no one likes you”, “Keep this up and we will vote for independence next time, you absolute turnips”, “Swear to God, you’re going to get a bagpipe outside your window at 5am for this,” etc.