It is absolutely no surprise that the Anglican provinces of Nigeria and Uganda [and Rwanda] have already stated that they do not intend to go to the Lambeth Conference in 2020.
This is entirely consistent with the view of many global south Anglican leaders that the fabric of communion has already been broken by the actions of North American Anglicans – initially by consecrating Gene Robinson as a practising homosexual bishop in 2003. The process of discipline that was begun through the Primates’ Meeting and the Windsor Report was rapidly abandoned and the can was kicked down the road. But it was plain to anyone that communion between Anglicans was so badly damaged that never again could Anglicans pretend to have an interchangeable ministry and common worship.
For 10 years after the consecration of Gene Robinson there were various attempts to put the show back on the road but even Rowan Williams’ valiant attempt to create an Anglican Covenant, which might help to set some limits to the diversity of Anglicanism, was rejected by the General Synod of the Church of England. I still cannot quite believe that Synod members humiliated their Archbishop in such a brutal way.
When Justin Welby picked up the pieces, he travelled tirelessly around the world meeting with Anglican leaders. It is clear he picked up the message that the Communion was ‘broken’ in a very fundamental way. But he concluded that, because Anglican leaders were willing to meet with him, they might be willing to start meeting together once again. It was a risk worth taking but it hasn’t paid off. The boycott by…[three] of the biggest Anglican provinces will stand. Like the 2008 Conference in which almost a third of bishops refused to participate, the 2020 conference will be a diminished gathering.
Can the Anglican Communion be saved?
In a fascinating essay the evangelical theologian Andrew Goddard agrees that the signs are not good for the Lambeth 2020.
The great risk facing Justin Welby, he argues, is that a failure to gather all the bishops of the Anglican Communion will mark the end of the Lambeth Conference as an ‘effective Instrument of Communion’. He cites four factors, which could equally be applied to the other instruments of communion – the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting – which are:
- The failure to discipline
- The Archbishop’s changed approach on invitations to the Lambeth Conference
- An unwillingness to explore the logic of impaired communion
- And the conscientious objection of a large number of bishops.
I admire Goddard’s optimistic outlook that the Anglican Communion can still be saved. He sees the Communion as breaking down, whereas my slightly more brutal approach is to say the faultlines are too great and can never be bridged. The damage limitation exercise that Archbishops must engage in is to keep all the parties talking but it is long past time to abandon the so-called instruments of unity/communion and the pretence that Anglicans are in the same ‘Church’ in any meaningful sense.
But where I mostly disagree with him is on the obscure but important point that Justin Welby is wrongly acting out of step with his predecessor by issuing invitations to the Lambeth Conference on a different basis. Readers will remember that Rowan Williams refused to invite Gene Robinson to the Lambeth Conference in 2008, but even this little gesture backfired because those who refused to attend weren’t opposed in any petty sense to one single bishop, but to a heterodox theology that led to his consecration.
But Rowan Williams was wrong to think that he had the power of invitation to individual bishops. In fact his invitations should have been directed to all bishops in good standing with their own provinces. It is an over-mighty Archbishop who thinks he can personally decide for himself who he is in communion with, and therefore who is in the Anglican Communion. Archbishops of Canterbury have never been this powerful.
One of the problems that resulted from the Gene Robinson crisis in 2003 was that Anglicans pretended they had powers that they didn’t. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s clear choice in 2008 was not the petty power to single out one particular bishop but the greater and properly exercised power not to invite the Episcopal Church of the USA because through its actions it had torn the fabric of communion.
That was the only way to save the Anglican Communion. Of course, he didn’t and the rest is history.
–This appeared in the Church of England Newspaper, 15 February 2019 edition, on page 11; subscriptions to CEN are encouraged