How does the Lambeth Conference affect me?

In my previous Blog Post, I wondered aloud what I should write about this month.  Since my last Blog, apart from a few minor stories, there has only been one hot-button issue to reflect on, from where I’m sitting.  You on the other hand may say, well, what about … this, or … that issue.  Clearly if there is something you think was important, it went right by me, without me seeing!  Anyway, the issue I felt drawn to, was to reflect on was what happened at the Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference.  Looking back from here, I think I would describe it as a surprising and quite remarkable story.  And, to get there, I need to set the scene.

Just prior to going to press with last month’s blog, I was anxious with the seeming direction the church was travelling, as it headed into the Conference.  Pink News reported that “bishops to vote on officially banning same-sex marriage around the world”, which was published 3 days after my previous blog: and Premier, “Potential vote on homosexuality at Lambeth Conference sparks criticism”.

Just to make clear at the start, I am not an Anglican, neither have I ever been one, but arguably, as probably the most influential church in the UK, I feel I ought to be interested in their direction of travel – especially in as far as it’s attitudes to those identifying as LGBTQ+.  

Perhaps I should include a disclaimer of sorts: What I write here is clearly written as an outsider, who did not attend the Lambeth Conference, so, if you were there, you may disagree with my understanding of events, and you are welcome to drop me a line and correct me.  However, I have tried to put together this article from the reportage of a number of sources (probably over a dozen although I don’t quote from all of them) – a few who were quite glum, and others who were quite effusive!

Firstly, what is the Lambeth Conference?  In 1867 the first Lambeth Conference took place at Lambeth Palace in London, where 76 bishops from across the world met to discuss issues that were pressing in that day.  It has usually met every ten years since then, other than during the two World Wars.  The last Conference to meet at Lambeth Palace was in 1958, and in recent years it’s focus has been to meet in Canterbury.  In essence, it is still a gathering of as many Anglican bishops as can come from across the world, to meet, share their experiences, and discuss the pressing issues of the day, face to face.

It is seen as kind of council meeting “in a non-juridical mode.  Here the bishops come precisely to confer and not to take decisions that are binding on the member churches.” (Quoted from the conference website.) There is a fair degree of irony in that comment as we’ll see.

This conference should have taken place around 2018, but was significantly delayed, not least by Covid, and this year (at the beginning of August) approximately 650 Bishops gathered, representing dioceses and Christian communities from around 165 countries of the Anglican Communion, together with their spouses and a few additional ecumenical guest observers.  (The Conference website indicates “1000 active bishops and spouses from across the Anglican Communion” would attend.  One person who was actually there, told me that there were actually closer to 1300 people in total.)

Until recently the Conference passed Resolutions, but this time, these have been referred to as “Calls”, and some commentators have expressed puzzlement and others distain of the name.  “Resolutions” have a strong hint of having a legal commitment, and as I understand it, “Calls” are an “appeal” to the church leadership to give them a guide as to the direction of travel a church should aspire to, within its own situation, but without the seeming nailed-on legal framework.  Part of the reason for this is that you have many different cultures with differing needs, backgrounds and experiences, and what might seem sensible in one place, may be inappropriate, or less appropriate, in another.

At this conference, the “pressing issues of the day” to be explored by the bishops, were:

  • Mission and Evangelism.
  • Safe Church — safeguarding and abuse.
  • Anglican Identity.
  • Reconciliation — including the legacy of colonialism and wealth acquired through the slave trade.
  • Human Dignity — including sexuality.
  • Environment and Sustainable Development.
  • Christian Unity — ecumenism.
  • Inter-faith Relations — how do we relate to those with theological differences.
  • Discipleship.
  • Science and Faith. – How do we close the gap between Science and Faith

Prior to the Conference the idea was that Bishops would be able to vote in one of two ways, either:

  • “This call speaks for me, I add my voice to it and commit myself to take the action I can, to implement it” or,
  • “This call requires further discernment; I commit my voice to the ongoing process.”

There was no perceived need at the time to include a negative vote.  Hmm, that was a mistake!

One of the Calls that interested me was the Science and Faith issue, because I believe it is important that science be defended by those with faith.  Science at its core, is a study of absolutes, codified as Laws, because it doesn’t matter where in the world you do an experiment, if the environment is the same, the result of the experiment will always be the same.  Sadly, in this age of QAnon, scepticism and deniers, people are encouraged to doubt even the most fundamental truths.  There have always been and will always be the odd few bad scientists, but it is rank stupidity to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Good science is always checked by peers to ensure accuracy. 

If a scientist does something shonky, and it differs from what has previously been accepted and proven as true, you don’t unquestioningly accept the findings.  Instead, you thoroughly check it, exploring whether the experiment was correctly set up and making sure you can understand and explain fully why the result differs.  Have the findings/experiment been accurately described? Is the news source reliable? What is the record? Has the report been selective? Do they have an impeccable reputation? Have the results been twisted for political gain? etc. etc. God gave you the ability to question, examine and reason, and we should do that with the utmost integrity.  If the science stands up under scrutiny, we embrace it and take on board what it tells us.

However, the “Call” I deliberately haven’t drawn your attention to, so far, was the one that proved very nearly catastrophic for the Conference.  Even the Church Times came close to using that adjective!  Read what they wrote here.  It was the issue around Human Dignity – and included sexuality.

It was not until about a week and a half before the Conference that the text for the call became available, and you may remember it blowing up in the media.  What happened was that an affirmation of Lambeth Resolution 1.10 had been slipped into the draft Call on Human Dignity.  This Resolution was passed at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 and held that marriage was “between a man and a woman”, and that same-sex relationships were unscriptural.  This would effectively ban same-sex marriage.  If you want to see the full text of the original Resolution, which was MUCH longer, you can read it here.  

Mention of this Resolution was significant because it appeared three times in the text and once in the supplementary notes.  It couldn’t therefore just be ignored.  Hence, because the mechanism of  the ‘Calls’ gave no option to reject a Call, all hell broke loose. 

Simply put, assuming this was deliberate and not a cock-up, this was an underhand “Catch‑22”: if the Conference passed the Call, it would have been incredibly divisive, as it would be saying that LGBT Christians have no place in the church.  Since there was no mechanism to vote against the resolution at the time, the attack had been very cleverly mounted, because the wording of the voting system implied a commitment both ways – either to take action to implement, or to discuss further about how to achieve that same end. 

On the other hand, if there had been a way to vote against the motion and in the resulting vote, LGBT Christians were affirmed, there was a strong likelihood that the current trickle of Bishops leaving the parent body would become a much stronger flow, particularly from the nations of the Southern hemisphere.   

These Bishops (and churches) were likely to look to join the breakaway GAFCON movement. (Global Anglican Future Conference).  “The Gafcon movement is a global family of authentic Anglicans standing together to retain and restore the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion.”

That phrase “restore the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion” is a bit of a smokescreen, because it is insulting to everyone else, as it is claiming those who disagree with their particular theological interpretation, do not hold the Bible at their heart, which is elitist, offensive, and clearly wrong-headed.

So, what happened was that as folks were arriving for the conference, a third alternative/way to vote, was added.  Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, added that, in this instance, bishops would have an additional option:

  • “This call does not speak for me.  I do not add my voice to this call.”

This clearly did not resolve the underlying crisis, but it allowed Bishops to register their view that in their mind, it was wrong.  I ought to reiterate that although these were “Calls”, as we said earlier, they do not have the weight of judicial measures, and are purely advisory.  However, whether you are affirming or non-affirming, there is no getting away from the significant weight this decision would be given by both sides of the debate.

In the end, as an outsider, I don’t know quite how the specific mechanics worked themselves out, because trying to track the trail of breadcrumbs is difficult to trace precisely, but Archbishop Justin was able to get the Conference to agree that whilst Lambeth Resolution 1.10 exists it will not be enforced, or applied, anywhere – no church or person would be disciplined.  In his opening statement he said:

“For the large majority of the Anglican Communion, the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted, and without question – not only by bishops, but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live,” he said.

“For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the Church a victim of derision, contempt, and even attack.  For many Churches, to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.

“For a minority, we can say almost the same.  They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change.  They are not careless about scripture.  They do not reject Christ.

But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study, and reflection on understandings of human nature.

“So let us not treat each other lightly or carelessly.  We are deeply divided.  That will not end soon.  We are called by Christ himself both to truth and unity.”

There was discussion in small groups, but no vote, but reports indicate that there was a very real and palpable sense of the Spirit of God present from the time Archbishop Justin spoke, in that people from differing sides of the debate were able to talk to, and listen to each other, with no rancour or undercurrent.  The Rt Rev Jill Duff, the Bishop of Lancaster wrote very positively about it in the Premier Christianity Magazine saying “Archbishop Justin’s words to us at the start of the session on Human Dignity held it so well.  As he spoke, it felt like there was a heaviness of the presence of the Spirit of God in the room.  I can still feel it as I type this now.”

In the end bishops could travel home and say “the Archbishop of Canterbury says that this exists, it does exist.  There’s no question that it exists.”  However, others can go home and say that although it exists, “having it exist does not mean that, in my context, I need to go home and say that it is enforced.  So, I think it was very artfully phrased [ ] that something can exist, but it doesn’t mean that it needs to be applied universally.” (Both quotes from the superb Church Times article I quoted a while back, which is well worth a read)

After that discussion, one hundred bishops and archbishops from across the world signed an affirming statement, “recognising “the hurt that many LGBT+ people have historically been wounded by the Church. . .”  which you can read here and view the signatories.

Sceptics will say this is a fudge, but I think that is a wholly wrong reading of the situation.  You had two groups of people with implacably opposing views, and if one side, was seen to have “won”, the church could have been irredeemably split.  In that case everyone loses, and no-one really wins.  You’ve read my blogs and possibly bits of my essay, over the last year or two, and you’ll know I want to see a full acceptance that those who are Christians and identify as LGBTQ+ are fully accepted in whatever church they choose to worship in, without prejudice or restriction of their gifting under Jesus.  I want to see them able to enjoy all the sacraments as I do, and have no limits to their role within whatever church they belong to.  Throughout the Conference the bishops were being asked to focus on the epistle of 1 Peter.  In the booklet containing the Lambeth Calls text, the writers quoted from 1 Peter ‘serve one another with whatever gift each of you have received.’ (1 Peter 4: 10)  This is what I would love to see our LGBTQ+ friends being able to do, without feeling self-conscious (– because what I am doing is strange or unusual), to the glory of God.

I want to see all Christians embrace the same theology I have come to embrace, but in parts of the world that isn’t yet possible and will not happen during my lifetime and possibly not for decades to come, sadly.  (It WILL eventually come, though.) I also have to be honest and say it took me till my late fifties before my own “Damascus Road” experience of changing attitude.  I pray that churches and Christians won’t wait as long as I did.

In my own church I have seen the tears African friends of mine cry over the rejection they have experienced from not just their “home” churches, but their families, resulting in their needing to flee to this country.  There are tears also of rejection and loneliness, and we need to be there to offer help, love and friendship.  There are stories of beatings given out by relatives who can’t accept this “white man’s disease”.

African churches say that people identifying as gay only came in with Colonialism, but that is wrong.  There are historically recorded examples of LGBTQ+ lifestyles and behaviour long before the “white-man” disrupted the global south.  What came in was that the “white-man” gave a name to LGBTQ+ identities and called them “Sin/sinful”, and as the African churches grew, it became inculcated into their cultural background.

So, whilst I wish the Anglican Lambeth Conference had been able to endorse marriage of gay people (there was never a chance this would be on the table this time round), Archbishop Justin should be applauded and commended for the wisdom he showed, and by finding a way to keep the church together.  The church (universal, not just the Anglicans) must also strive for unity. 

The Rev Richard Coles speaking ahead of his recent documentary about grief on Channel 4 was asked about the Lambeth Conference on Premier Christian Radio’s “The Profile” on August 5th.  He said: “I think the question for me now, is not, “can it be resolved”?  But can we stick together?  But I think [ ] the latest letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury [ ] acknowledges the reality of the situation: We are divided about this.  We’re all in the same room.  Some people decide they don’t want to receive communion alongside others, but we are nonetheless all in the same room [ ].”  Since that was a broadcast interview, I have used square brackets where unnecessary or unintelligible words or phrases were used, but I haven’t changed either the substance or the context of his comments.

The debate about sexuality is far from over.  There still needs to be a review of the “Living in Love and Faith” consultative process that has tried to involve all Anglicans across the country, from the bishop to the occasional attender.  At the General Synod in February 2023, it is planned to consider proposals from the College and House of Bishops, who will have listened to all the reports coming from the “Living in Love and Faith” consultation.  From this, there is an intention to agree a clear direction of travel.

So, a split is still possible (/likely?), but it depends on how hard people work at striving for unity.  Possibly the chance of a split is slightly reduced now.  I think those of us arguing for change, who feel we are already lagging well behind where we should be, need to manage our expectations, so that if it should sooner than we expect we can praise God and have a party.  If it takes a while, we need patience.  

Maybe there is a debate to be had over how long we remain patient, when people are being hurt all the time, and the wounds they carry are deep.

But it is also incumbent on those who fear change, to be honest in their own exploration of the Bible, and to set aside the mentality of battening down the hatches.  Please talk – engage us, ask questions.  We all need to talk, but we all need to listen, really listen.  Listen to those who are hurting and listen to those who have already walked the same path you face.  The Bible can be relied on.  It can be trusted.  God is there listening to your uncertainties and questions. 

Maybe there is a fear that “my faith might be threatened” if I compromise and accept LGBTQ+ rights.  Don’t forget, you have an obligation before God to think of others and consider whether your attitudes are harming them, but you also need to anchor any change in your theology, in what the Bible says.

In recent years, we hear a lot more talk of people going through “Deconstruction” of their faith.  I’ve done it a couple of times – before it was called “deconstruction”!  It’s a horrible experience, but I followed it with “Reconstruction” – building it back up on firmer foundations.  Yes, there is a danger of losing your faith, but most people come out the other end stronger, and with a more real and relevant faith.  For me, I knew at heart that God was real, but I doubted my own, my friends, pastors, and other human ways of explaining, demonstrating and rationalising it.  Because I still had that foundation, reconstruction was easier on both occasions, although I still struggle in some areas, like prayer.

Don’t be afraid of doubt, but make sure it fuels you to make an effort to really find answers. In my experience, finding answers may take a while – months rather than days as the slight glimmer of hope slowly glows brighter. Doubts are only going to be bad if you ignore them, or pretend everything is normal

Don’t reject relationships, but instead get to know, personally, people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community – obviously along those other folks we keep at arm’s length, like the asylum seeker, the homeless and anyone else you might be uncomfortable with.  And yes, I’m talking to myself here as well.  Don’t forget Jesus’ parable about the Sower going out to sow and how some seed fell on the path, some on shallow, stony soil, some among thorns and some in good soil.  Matthew 13.  Make sure your seed of faith is planted in good soil, not in shallow, stony soil, where it’ll wither and die.

Justin Welby is not the only one struggling with this issue of sexuality.  The Methodists, United Reformed Church, Episcopalian, and Church of Scotland have all trodden this path, and the Baptists are now beginning their own journey.  The Baptist Union of Great Britain covers a very diverse group of churches and because doctrine and policy is handled at the local church level, not centrally, or nationally, there could be quite a tussle.  The issue they are looking to address is presumably under a list of Ministerial Recognition Rules, under which, a minister may lose their ministerial accreditation:

… ‘Sexual Misconduct which brings the church and ministry into disrepute. NB This specifically includes sexual intercourse and other genital sexual activity outside of marriage (as defined exclusively as between a man and a woman).’ 
The request is that the last section in brackets is removed (see foot of the webpage), which would mean that a minister who is in a same-sex marriage would no longer be committing gross misconduct and lose their accreditation.  One to watch!

Outside, in the real world, people don’t see us as Anglican, or Baptist, or Catholic, or…,  they see us as Christians, or as people who go to church.  They don’t understand doctrinal differences, but just lump us all together because we all have that same belief that someone who was killed, became alive again, and that we can be like Him.  In that sense, in the eyes of the world, we are already united one with another.  So, when we shout at each other, when we display anger, or when we claim to love, and yet in the next breath, reject the person identifying as LGBTQ+, the contempt they have for us is deepened because our hypocrisy is obvious.  People not connected to a church have no problem seeing that identifying as LGBTQ+ isn’t a lifestyle choice, and yet many Christians are too blind and refuse to believe it – and we then look pathetic.

We should be leading society towards a better future with Jesus.  Instead, we lag behind, perhaps reluctantly dragging behind us, a sorry looking image of Jesus, made something like us, because that’s the way we see him.  Instead, we should be reflecting the real image of Jesus – and we should be doing that wherever we are.  The Old Testament majors on looking after the widow, the orphan and the alien (in our language that is the asylum-seeker or refugee).  As an aside, do you know what God’s Word/God’s command for a party is?  You’ll find it in Deuteronomy 16: 14-15 – on this occasion, I’ve used The Message version:

“Rejoice at your festival: you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, the Levite, the foreigner, and the orphans and widows who live in your neighbourhood. Celebrate the Feast to God, your God, for seven days at the place God designates.  God, your God, has been blessing you in your harvest and in all your work, so make a day of it—really celebrate!”

Did you catch that: Have fun at your party – invite your children, the staff you work with, the church, the asylum seeker, the homeless, and anyone else who might have been left out.

So, in conclusion, I think Archbishop Justin has proven to be wise and a superb conciliator.  God seems to be using him, having put him into the right place at the right time.  He encourages and allows the Holy Spirit to work in all he does, and his humility and humour is also very evident:

Asked on Wednesday morning, at a press conference at the launch of the Communion Forest*, whether the Anglican Communion was “out of the woods” on the issue of same-sex marriage, Archbishop Welby took a cautious line: “It has been the history of the Anglican Communion since 1867 that when it gets out of one wood, it tends to look carefully on the map for another wood to get into.” 

Yes it’s that same Church Times article again!

*Look it up!