The Lambeth Conference 2020 should have started this week, marked this weekend by a Eucharist at Canterbury Cathedral. Bishops from around the Anglican communion and their spouses would have been gathered together for what would probably have been expected to be the high point of archbishop Justin’s archepiscopate. But then Covid 19 happened and everything changed. Initially it was postponed until 2021, but has now been put back to 2022. Details here.
In view of the global nature of the public health crisis that is a wise precaution. However, this does change the dynamic and there are new opportunities and threats. Cancelling is not an option, but the clock is ticking. Archbishop Justin has been in office since 2013 and can only stay in office until he is 70, which is in 2026. History does not wait.
The first Lambeth Conference was in 1867 and was called by the then Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Thomas Longley, archbishop from 1862 to 1868. The presenting matter was the theological teachings of the bishop of Natal, John Colenso, mainly on polygamy. Every archbishop since Longley has held a Lambeth Conference, with one exception. Archbishop William Temple was archbishop from 1942 to 1944 and died in office. His short time in office and the world war going on at the time meant that he did not have the opportunity to hold a Lambeth Conference. Archbishop Justin may feel that his place in the history of the Anglican communion will depend on holding a successful Lambeth Conference.
It was not clear how exactly his Conference would function. Most Lambeth Conferences have produced resolutions. A full list of previous resolutions can be accessed here.
However resolutions can be a risky strategy, as archbishop George Carey found out at his Lambeth Conference in 1998, where the conference passed resolution 1.10 on human sexuality, which can be accessed here.
The 1998 conference indirectly led to the formation of GAFCON, the global Anglican futures conference. GAFCON has always regarded Lambeth 1.10 as a foundational tenet of faith that people of GAFCON have to sign up to. However Lambeth resolutions are not binding across the communion, each one would have to be approved by each individual province to have any legal force. The damage that has been done worldwide by Lambeth 1.10 is very significant and there is no mechanism to withdraw a resolution once it is passed.
Archbishop Rowan Williams took a very different strategy in organising his Lambeth Conference. It did not produce any resolutions, but instead used the Indaba process that would have been familiar to some of the bishops as a way to discuss controversial matters.
When archbishop Justin spoke at Greenbelt in 2019 and he was asked about those attending the next Lambeth Conference. It was clear that getting a large number of bishops to attend was a high priority for him. However, the issue of partnered gay bishops is again proving controversial.
At the time of the previous Lambeth Conference in 2008 there had been one partnered gay bishop, Gene Robinson, the American bishop of New Hampshire. He was not invited to the Lambeth Conference under threat of a boycott from many other bishops. Further details are available here.
At his Greenbelt talk archbishop Justin explained that by not inviting three episcopal spouses he could still invite the bishops themselves and that this compromise would allow many more bishops from around the communion to attend the conference. It was a matter of numbers and this compromise was seen as an improvement on 2008. This may be a compromise that archbishop Justin feels he can live with, but as time progresses the boycott threat grows too.
At first there were three bishops in same sex marriages:
Mary Glasspool, assistant bishop in New York and her wife Becki Sander
Kevin Robinson, Canadian area bishop for York in the Diocese of Toronto and his husband Mohan Sharma
Thomas Brown, bishop of Maine and his husband Thomas Mousin
But since then there have been two more married American bishops elected:
Deon K Johnson, bishop of Missouri and his husband Jhovanny Osorio-Vazquez Johnson
Bonnie A Perry, bishop of Michigan and her wife Susan Harlow.
America and Canada may well elect more bishops who are married. So could other provinces. A particular issue may be the Church of Wales’s bishop of Monmouth Cherry Vann and her civil partner Wendy. <ore details are here.
The threat of a boycott is always an issue. Last month GAFCON were due to hold their conference in Rwanda. One focus of this was for bishops who felt that they were unable to attend the Lambeth Conference. Details of this can be accessed here.
This conference has also been postponed due to covid 19. Who knows if or when it will be rescheduled. GAFCON was formed in 2008 as a gathering for bishops who felt that they could not attend that year’s Lambeth Conference. It has met twice since then and could decide to schedule their next gathering either before or after Lambeth 2022.Or they might decide to have a virtual meeting.
Avoiding a wholescale boycott by GAFCON aligned bishops would be high on archbishop Justin’s agenda. This will leave him vulnerable to pressure from GAFCON or other groups of bishops and archbishop Justin may feel pressurised to make further compromises in order to ensure high attendance.
However there are also opportunities for a replanned Lambeth Conference. With the world in a different place in 2022 there will likely be reduced expectations for the next Conference. With lower expectations, there is less pressure from history to deliver a ‘successful’ conference. There will certainly be less money available for it, both accounting for what has already been spent and for the ongoing financial burden imposed on the church by the effect of covid 19. Something less ambitious and less expensive may be a necessity.
A slimmed down and shorter Lambeth Conference, with more emphasis on virtual elements could see the matter of spousal invitations disappear altogether.
The future is not set, there are wildcards that cannot be predicted. One of these is the University of Kent, which hosts much of the conference and supplies accommodation to delegates. The facility simply may not be available for summer 2022. It also may have something to say about booking conditions. The exclusion of spouses in same sex marriages was contrary to their equal opportunities policy. They had to honour an existing contract, but that does not mean that they have to comply with a new booking. The university made it clear that they would offer free accommodation to the excluded spouses. The University of Kent’s response can be read here.
The other potentially significant wildcard will be the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process. The materials were originally due to be published in time for Lambeth. Now they will be published this November. The fate of LLF remains to be seen, it could have sunk without trace long before summer 2022 or it could have been the start of a more high-profile engagement with sexuality and gender or indeed anything in between.
Once his Lambeth Conference is over then the archbishop will be less vulnerable to pressure from external sources. His ‘legacy’ will be ready for history. Without the need to keep others onside, what will his priorities be? Might this be the time when progress in England could be possible, without the constant threat that any movement by the ‘mother church’ will imperil the worldwide communion?
The silver bullet would be a successful Lambeth Conference that would be archbishop Justin’s place in history and which would free him from some of the pressure to make compromises and keep as many bishops as possible onside. However the smoking gun is that there will be two more years in which he needs to compromise and appease in order to ensure success. Two more years where the two roles of primate of all England is in conflict with the role of the head of the Anglican communion. Two more years of long grass for progress in England.
But with many variables still too early to call, the success or failure is in God’s hands. When God rolls the dice, we all have to await the outcome.