It is only in recent times that invitations to the Lambeth Conference have become a matter of controversy. Until the last full conference in 1998, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited all diocesan bishops, and latterly suffragan and assistant bishops, together with their spouses to a conference in Canterbury.
It was never even thought that the Archbishop had the right to discriminate among bishops as to who had the right beliefs or pattern of Christian living. The assumption was that it was for each separate province of the Anglican Communion to appoint or elect bishops. The Archbishop had the power to invite but not to exclude individual bishops.
Of course, there have always been difficulties. During the 1980s and 1990s, when women were first appointed to the priesthood and episcopacy, there were some provinces that openly questioned whether they should attend Lambeth Conferences. Episcopacy is a universal ministry and the Anglican Communion’s unity depends on having a commonly accepted standard for ministry.
But the Archbishop of Canterbury issued invitations to all bishops, including women bishops. And the Anglican Communion managed to come together in spite of a degree of ‘impaired communion’ among the provinces and bishops.
The issue of sexuality proved much more intractable and controversial. And the reality is that for most evangelical Anglicans in particular, the issue of ordination of women was a secondary matter on which Christians could legitimately disagree. In contrast evangelicals view sexuality, and departing from God’s ordained order of marriage between a man and a woman, as a primary issue. This is because they argue that to agree to homosexual marriage is to defy the clear teaching of the Bible.
The ordination of a practising gay bishop in 2003 was described by a statement of an emergency Primates’ Meeting as a ‘tear in the fabric of the communion’. And so it proved to be. At no meeting since 2003 has there been full representation of bishops across the communion. And the Windsor Commission, led by Bishop Tom Wright, looked into the crisis and concluded that liberal provinces, such as the US and Canada, which had departed from Communion teaching on sexuality, would be disciplined by having ‘membership’ of the Communion and representation in its bodies limited.
This should have led to the exclusion of North American provinces from the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Instead, Archbishop Rowan Williams decided to rehabilitate the provinces which were broken with the Communion and invited their bishops. And then he broke with the practice of inviting all bishops and decided to exclude the gay bishop – Gene Robinson. This act of petty discrimination could easily have been avoided had he stuck to the Windsor principles and excluded all the Bishops of the US or Canada. Or he could have limited their role to that of observers.
As a result, at least one third of Anglican bishops refused to attend the Lambeth Conference, including all of the bishops from three of the most populous provinces: Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.
Archbishop Welby has stuck to the principle that it is not in his power to exclude individual bishops. As a result of this two practising homosexual bishops will be in attendance at the 2020 Lambeth Conference. But he has discriminated against their same-sex spouses.
This act of discrimination could land him into further trouble. It is all very well discriminating against a bishop, who chose that role for all it entailed, but to discriminate against their spouse is another matter. Modern culture will find it hard to forgive or forget such ‘cruelty’.
Interestingly enough at last week’s Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Hong Kong, Archbishop Welby said that the Council was barred by English law from debating the invitations because ACC was governed by charity law and doctrine was not mentioned in its purpose. This is a clumsy and convoluted way to avoid debate of a difficult issue. And it didn’t work. Rancour over the decision spilled over into the final working session of the conference and Archbishop Welby stepped in and issued an apology.
“I ask your forgiveness where I made mistakes,” he said. With this somewhat ambiguous apology came a proposal to renew the Anglican Communion’s attempts to listen to the experiences of homosexual people (in accordance with the famous Lambeth Resolution 1.10).
But Archbishop Welby’s attempts to bring Anglican Bishops together at the next Lambeth Conference by discriminating against individuals will fail like those of Archbishop Williams in 2008. The Church of Nigeria has already said that it will not send bishops to the conference. And the Global south movement, ‘Gafcon’ is now organising a separate meeting in Rwanda in June 2020 for bishops who don’t attend Lambeth.
It is now time to stop pretending that the Anglican Communion can go back to pitching itself as a worldwide body of Christians. It is now a series of networks united by a common history. Our defining characteristics of a universal ministry and common worship are long gone, and even those so-called ‘instruments’ of communion are disputed and threadbare.
–This column appears in the Church of England Newspaper, May 10, 2019 edition on page 11; subscriptions are encouraged