Reflections on Lambeth 2022 – ‘Can it stretch, or will it break?’

Hans Frei’s words – or rather a paraphrase of them – have been at the back of my mind over the last two weeks, as I’ve been present at most of the plenary days of the Lambeth Conference.  Probably the first thing to strike me, when I arrived in the searing heat which has dried and bleached the grass around the University of Kent campus into straw, was the colour of the assembly – not just the purple shirts of every shade, nor the slick, colourful posters and the banners dotted around the site, but also the blaze of strong African colours, reds, blues, yellows, greens, of traditional dress, that above all else signals the changing centre of gravity of the Anglican Communion.  It is the case, of course, that the gathering of the bishops of a worldwide communion means that all corners of the earth descended on Canterbury, but not just Anglicans – also representatives of all the other great world traditions of Christianity, including Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Reformed, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists.  They were the reason I was there, to help look after them.

              But however great and significant the gathering in itself, and however much it was a work of extraordinary complexity just to get all these people together (and not without the odd hiccup or three), there was a fundamental anxiety running through the early days, which Frei’s words capture.  Not until the ‘Call’ on Human Dignity had been presented and discussed would it be clear whether there was any future for the Lambeth Conference at all, or perhaps any future for the Anglican Communion as a federated body holding together wide variations in views and culture.  Would human sexuality turn out to be the breaking point for the Communion?  Practically everyone, on both sides, thought it would be, and for all we know that still may very well turn out to be the case.

              To me, it seemed the early auguries were not good.  Whether intentionally or not – probably not – the dispersal of events across a large campus meant that, in the heat, there was a great deal of walking between venues, which produced sometimes exhaustion or at least an air of enervation, making it hard to determine whether any kind of conference ‘ethos’ was emerging.  Moreover, at first at any rate, it almost seemed as if there were two conferences going on simultaneously.  One was a gathering of mostly white, Western bishops and their partners, who knew each other, talked to each other, shared more or less common values, language and culture, and socialized with ease in the bars in the evenings.  The other was a meeting of mostly black or minority ethnic bishops and their partners, most from the global south, who got up at sunrise and went to bed at sundown and did not go to the bars, and for many of whom English was as much a barrier as a common currency.  It seems to be little known outside the Conference itself that translation facilities were a necessity, in French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swahili, Xhosa, Japanese, amongst other languages.  I could see very easily how these vast cultural differences could facilitate the solidification of positions around contending principles.  The Conference is long and expensive, but not long enough for all these barriers of communication and culture to break down completely, even when British dioceses have twinned with others and hosted their bishops before the Conference itself.

              Also, you could not but be aware of the posturing and positioning going on around the Conference itself, on its fringes, in the wider Church, in campaigning groups, and in the media.  Expectations were clearly running high, whether for change or for resistance.  And again, the very organization of the Conference if anything, and probably necessarily, intensified the sense of something threatening, when security was quite tightly policed, and coloured lanyards and photo ID were essential to get into the venues.

              But, as it seemed to me, over the days I was there things were beginning to ease a little.  Conversations seemed a little less siloed.  Time takes its toll on mutual incomprehension when people spend time together, sitting in Bible study groups, and eating together.  Two other factors also seemed to me to chip away at the barriers.  One was a realization – partly prompted by the substance of some of the ‘Calls’ – that there is a broad common loyalty to the Anglican inheritance of faith, liturgy and order amongst the bishops (well, I know you’d hope that that would be the case, but still it’s good to see it emerge in discussion).   Central aspects of that are unquestionably contested.  Nonetheless discussion around the issue of Anglican identity in particular elicited a reaction from bishops across the commonly-assumed divide that probably helped to solidify a common sense of purpose on the Monday, the day before the discussion on Human Dignity.  I don’t know if that was a deliberate strategy on the part of the organizers, but if so, it was genius.  The other factor was simply the immense work the Archbishop and his wife, supported by the ‘team’, put into welcoming the bishops and their partners.  All of them were invited to receptions at the Old Palace on six almost consecutive nights.  The reception at Lambeth Palace – though this happened the day after the ‘Call’ on Human Dignity – was an enormous logistical feat, but carried through triumphantly.  Through the days of the Conference itself there really was, I think, an emergent recognition of the ‘bonds of affection’, as they used to be described in Anglican discourse.

None of this, of course, takes away from the fundamental division over issues – well, an issue, though it runs like a fissure through so many aspects of church life, including judgements about personal morality, Biblical interpretation, ecclesial discipline, and even questions of order.  And what you make of the importance of this issue for the Communion as a whole depends on what you think constitutes sufficient agreement to seal fellowship, koinonia, in the Gospel.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m not one who thinks there is a serious possibility of ‘agreeing to disagree’.  There are incommensurate, asymmetrical truth claims at issue, which can’t be resolved in the long run unless one side or the other concedes the ground.  And again, even to say this takes nothing away from the fact that for many people the acceptance of their sexuality is a matter of common humanity, its denial an assault on their well-being and integrity.

What changed, then, at Lambeth 2022?  Nothing, I think, fundamentally.  Peace hasn’t broken out in the Communion, contrary to what some commentators think.  Nothing has shifted one way or other to decide permanently the outcome of a long standoff.  However a kind of accommodation, a temporary ceasefire, not a peace, may have been reached.  What lies behind that – I’d liked to think – is a basic realism about the alignment of opinion in the Communion.  The Archbishop played a blinder, in my view, in presenting the assembled bishops with the simple fact of their division, and the depth of conviction and the complexities of context that underlie mutually opposing positions.  The Archbishop neither aligned himself with Lambeth 1.10, nor sided with its opponents (there was some particularly poor reporting on this, including from the Guardian).  Sometimes, in history, ecclesiastical councils and assemblies are best served not by the ‘victory’ of one theological or moral position, but by a pragmatic agreement to step back from the brink and continue to work on the issues.  Both sides can claim something from Lambeth 2022 – one side the recognition of the deep feelings of principle and justice which drive their views, and the message that they will not be driven out, the other side the recognition that Lambeth 1.10 continues to be the will of the clear majority of the Communion’s bishops, and that their views are driven by the urgent pressures of their own contexts. 

There may, in all this, also be a growing acceptance that the significance of the Lambeth Conference can be exaggerated.  It is indeed one of the instruments of communion.  It was called first in 1867 to give the Archbishop an opportunity to hear the views of bishops scattered across the world, and for them in turn to hear each others’ views.  It can be no surprise that for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with an episcopate drawn mostly from Britain, a considerable degree of common cultural identity underpinned the growing moral authority of Lambeth resolutions.  But that changed in the 1980s, as part of the delayed impact of decolonisation.  No one can assume – as I hope I’ve indicated above – that a common cultural identity underlies the Communion today.  And yet, once we pull back from the more exaggerated descriptions of the authority of the Lambeth Conferences, there remains the simple fact that the Conference is summoned by the Archbishop, and hosted by him (so far) personally, to inform him of the views of his fellow bishops and to inform each other of their views.  That is exactly what happened at Lambeth 2022.  And, for the time being, it did indeed stretch.

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