Well, the Lambeth Conference train has shuddered to a halt, and as we emerge, blinking confusedly into the sunshine of this unfamiliar railroad station we have arrived at, it might be worth glancing around and figuring out where we are. Are we somewhere new? Or was this an elaborate fever dream where we fell asleep and actually didn’t go anywhere at all? What even is life?
When we last left off, the conference was convening with the Archbishop of Canterbury promising that he was Very Sorry about the changed language in the draft of A Call for Human Dignity, No Idea How That Happened, and Of Course, You Can Vote No, Sillies.
The draft was in fact changed, to now reflect the state of affairs around the communion: many provinces continue to see marriage as being between one man and one woman, while many others, after long processes of study, prayer, and reflection, now have more open views of the sacrament. This doesn’t seem like an earth shattering statement, but it was the first time that any “official” Anglican Communion type person had admitted this sort of thing.
As for voting….
Things started off strangely with a vote on the Call for Mission and Evangelism (which was not considered controversial). Everyone had their electronic thingies, everyone was set to vote. Over 40% of the bishops just didn’t do it. Around 30% voted firmly in favor, another 30% voted kinda in favor, and then the ABC reported this vote as passing by over 60%.
From the outside, it wasn’t clear why so many people didn’t vote. Confusion with the electronic thingies? Wifi failure? Boycott of voting? Covid? I am aware of some rumblings that a few bishops thought voting at all was inappropriate, and so didn’t do it, but it’s unclear how widespread that was.
In any case, the next day, the ABC decided to take another tactic. No more voting! We’re done with voting now! Instead, the bishops would be quiet and prayerful, unless they disagreed with a call, in which case, they would say NO forcefully to signal their discontent.1
This worked for one of the calls but fell apart on another one. Refusing to be defeated, the ABC then decided that votes would now be taken by a show of hands: options to be given were “yes”, “no”, and “Eeyore”.
I am not making this up.
I am told that the Eeyore thing is a reference to a sermon given earlier in the day wherein the ABC confessed to being much more of an Eeyore person rather than a Tigger type person2. Thus, we can surmise that “Eeyore” here stands in for “I am not sure about this Thing, but I guess so. Thanks for noticing.3” We can also surmise that the organizers were possibly running right out of voting mechanisms and just reached for the nearest thing in their heads.
We have all been there.
If you’re wondering “ok, but the gay people thing! How did they vote on the gay people thing?” The answer is “They didn’t.” After all of that, the ABC discerned that voting in any manner, with any reference to Disney characters, would not go well, and so the small groups of bishops just discussed the call. And lo, it was discussed. That was it. No voting, no decisions.
Afterwards, predictably, Statements were Made. The Global South bishops made a statement being angry that the progressive provinces were not cast into the outer darkness as they wished. They did receive a letter from the ABC stating that 1998 1.10 was still valid but I welcome you to figure out what exactly that means4.
Our own Presiding Bishop filmed a video message assuring our LGBTQ+ folks that we weren’t going back, that no matter what came out of Lambeth the commitment of TEC to our LGBTQ+ siblings was absolute, and indeed, he thought progress had been made. There was also a statement released from progressive bishops around the Communion affirming their own commitment to affirmation of LGBTQ+ Anglicans. Notably, this was signed by the primates of Canada, the US, New Zealand, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and many other bishops from around the world.
Where does all this leave us? Was it all pointless?
I am going to argue that no, Lambeth Shambles is not pointless, but that is utterly in spite of our best efforts.
While the bishops were trying to not get covid, and to figure out how to vote this time, they just hung around each other. They ate together, they walked around Kent together. They took a lot of selfies, if Twitter is any indication. They compared stories from back home. They worshipped and prayed together. (I know the conservative bishops made A Statement about not receiving communion with progressive bishops, but from most reports, that does not seem to have actually come to fruition.) I am going to hazard a guess and suggest that they may have bonded even over the ludicrous voting procedures together5.
The thing is, the only way to get people to stop making statements about a sort of people they’ve never encountered is to make them encounter those people. Make them eat dinner with the friendly bishop of Maine who is gay. Have them do Bible study with the bishop of Central New York who will explain at length the grace that LGBTQ+ clergy have brought her diocese.
Will it always work? No. Sometimes people act in bad faith, and that is how we have the US Congress. But the Anglican Communion is mostly not Congress—mostly, it is a group of people who honestly want to do the right thing. And it becomes much harder to dismiss someone else’s humanity when you are seated across the table from it in good faith. In 2008, TEC didn’t have anyone to sign a statement of affirmation with us. It was us on an ice floe with a Canadian diocese, all by our lonesome, holding onto inclusion as best we could, with our presiding bishop who wasn’t even allowed to act as a bishop within England at the time6. Today? So many people. So many bishops. And next time the list will be longer. And then longer. Then longer after that.
The besetting sins of the Communion—the colonialism and the racism it was founded in—still cause it to try to make pronouncements and make statements, when what we actually need is the tea party from the 1880s, ironically. Any time we try to pull off more than that, the domestic politics of England overrun the whole endeavor and no one is happy. (Example: only two English bishops signed the affirmation statement and the domestic English press has spun the whole conference as “Anglicans throw the gays under the bus again.” From their perspective, that’s an easy conclusion to draw; the Church of England doesn’t have marriage equality, and being as the ABC just spent the last 2 weeks trying to placate a bunch of very conservative provinces, I’d be mad too. And yet—there are a fair number of progressive CofE bishops pushing for change, whose jobs are infinitely harder because of the ABC’s responsibility for Lambeth. See? Colonialism is a bad time for everyone.)
The more we try to make Lambeth Mean Something, the less helpful and meaningful it is. The more we try to make it legislate and pronounce, the more we issue Statements, the farther away we get from the helpful gift it could actually offer us–A chance to see Christ in one another.
1Which is really a great plan. Nothing says “Bringing the worldwide communion together in peace” like asking a ton of bishops to shout at each other when they disagree. Stellar. No notes.
2 I too am an Eeyore, sir. In that, we are the same.
3 This is only a guess, because voting Eeyore is, by nature, a complex signifier. Could it mean you are depressed by the options given, and decline to participate? Could it mean you feel like a little grey rain cloud? SO MANY OPTIONS.
4 Did it happen? Sure! What binding influence does it have on anyone? Not much!
5 If someone could confirm this, it would gladden my heart enormously. Til then, I will just envision the bishop of Jerusalem rolling his eyes at the bishop of Tanzania when ++Justin referred to Eeyore voting. Please let me have this.
6 Someone correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I believe 2008 was the visit to England where Katharine Jefferts-Schori (who was our Presiding Bishop at the time) wasn’t allowed to wear her mitre in the cathedral because of girl-cooties. Might have been on an earlier trip, but it definitely happened when she was primate.