At the Lambeth Conference, taking place at the University of Kent campus, some 650 bishops from all over the world, have been conferring on the “Calls”. The drafts of these calls were prepared in advance during Phase 1 which consisted of online conversations between the bishops about these themes during the years leading up to this conference. The conference itself, meeting in person, is Phase 2, called “listening together”.
A global gathering of bishops
It is important not to think of this conference as like a Council or Parliament making rules. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not like the Pope making infallible rulings on doctrine. Anglicans call themselves a “communion” to express the reciprocal links of the parishes, dioceses and provinces that span 165 countries, in fact, most of the world (which has 192 countries in total).
Each diocese has its own synod, an assembly of the clergy plus parish representatives which is chaired by the diocesan bishop. Each diocese will then send representatives to the synods of the province it belongs to. Each one is advised to take up the Calls from the conference and act on them if they see fit. In addition, there are some bodies, called “Instruments” which enable the communion to work together, such as the Primates meeting (primates = archbishops, not the greater apes), and the ACC (Anglican Consultative Council).
How each day is structured
The programme of this Lambeth Conference begins each day with morning prayer or a Eucharist, and then there is a Bible study from 1 Peter, connected to the theme of the day. Each theme is then introduced by a plenary panel of three or four people, from different parts of the world, who can contribute their special insights from that part of the world. This may be interspersed with film clips of individuals also talking from their experience. This part is open to the media.
All Conference sessions that are being live streamed – including the Bible expositions and Plenary sessions – can be viewed on the Anglican Communion YouTube channel and the Lambeth Conference Facebook page. The videos will also remain on these channels to watch again afterwards.
Discussion out of earshot of the press
Then the next period, when the bishops confer on the call, is not open. We have been told that the process is that the bishops have been randomly assigned to tables of about seven people, each table with a scribe or record-keeper. These records are gathered up and will be carefully analysed and processed by “the instruments.” Initially there was to be electronic voting on each Call, but this was first adapted to allow for No votes, and then abolished after a trial on the first day.
The first day was about Mission and Evangelising. As Stephen Cotrell, Archbishop of York said, “evangelising is the core business of the church, how can you vote against it?” But some did apparently, as results released to the media read 66 for yes, 3 wait for further discernment, and 1 no. There was some question as to whether this was % or a count of the consensus of each table. But it was never clarified, as the voting was not to be used any further.
Lambeth 1.10—all over again
This was a wise decision as the Conference progressed towards the session on Human Dignity, which contained the controversial re-statement of Lambeth 1:10 (from the 1998 conference) which rejects the marriage of homosexuals in church. This is divisive as many provinces are more accepting of homosexuals, even in church leadership positions, than others such as the provinces of Uganda, Rwanda and Nigeria which have opposed any movement on this for the past two decades.
At the press conferences I attended there were repeated attempts by the journalists to winkle out the details of this conflict as the most newsworthy point of the entire conference. The focus on this long-lasting conflict is what the conference planners, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, wanted to prevent. Just before the session Archbishop Justin wrote to all the bishops on this matter. Find the text of the letter here.
Is the Lambeth Conference relevant?
After all, there is so much else that Anglicans can do together and learn from each other. Even in the Call on Human Dignity, there are in fact 16 other “acts against human dignity” that are listed: colonialism, slave-trade, abuse of power, excessive enrichment and impoverishing, economic exploitation, inequalities of land, health and education, exploitation of the young, unjust labour practices, mistreatment of ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees, human trafficking, religious persecution, pressures on those guided by freedom of conscience, gender-based violence, war and sexual violence in conflict.
When I told someone I was spending time writing on the Lambeth conference and he queried “Is it relevant?” I found myself snapping back “relevant to what?” Even if someone takes an a-religious or agnostic stance in their lives, they still live in a society with all the problems listed above, which demand an ethical response.
What shapes our ethics?
Most people do not make up their minds on such issues as individuals: they are influenced by the society in which they live and the media they choose to engage with, sometimes filtered by commercial or political interests, lies and fakery. One invaluable function of a church as big and diverse as the Anglican communion is that it can draw on the testimony of people at the sharp end of these issues, acting alongside them in their localities.
To some cynics, it might seem that the Calls covered in the first few days of Lambeth have been a bit inward looking. They are:
Day 1: Mission and Evangelism
Day 2: Safe Church
Day 3: Life of the Communion: Anglican identity
Day 4: Peace and Reconciliation
Day 5: Human Dignity
What is mission but trying to grow the business? What is “safe church” but trying to brush over a besmirched brand? What is Anglican identity but rebranding? But by the time we get to “peace and reconciliation” and “human dignity” we are clearly on a pathfinding exercise for struggling humanity.
Personal tales told
Those who gave their stories in the plenaries showed how the churches can be effective in their societies, whether it be Australia where the churches have been making reparation to the aboriginal individuals cruelly snatched from their families as children, or S Africa where the churches have been working together with mining companies to stamp out unhealthy conditions.
Preparing a safeguarding protocol for the whole Communion
It is not only what the Anglican church can do to improve its own practice. There was some discussion at a Press Conference about safeguarding procedures, as there are now guidelines to be issued for the whole communion. But I pointed out, from experience in African parishes and now back in Kent, that it is much easier to implement procedures here in England. Getting DBS clearance to teach in Sunday school, for instance, relies on police checks and registers. Same with background checks on people seeking any church appointments.
But in societies without good digital records, or with corrupt police, the whole procedure is shaky. The church has a role in influencing the procedures, even the laws, of the society in which they are located. Many of the acts against human dignity as listed above can be curbed with careful law-making, and the vigilance of the churches to ensure that the laws are kept. It is often the churches that are the first to protest when a society is deteriorating and human rights are being abused.
So, yes, I think the Anglican communion is still “relevant”.
Further articles will cover the Calls that were discussed later in the week.