The Lambeth Conference:
The turning point that wasn't

By John Bryson Chane

The 2008 Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade gathering of bishops from around the Anglican Communion, can best be described in two words; optimistic and troublesome.

I have always believed that relationship building must be at the center of all we do in the life of the Anglican Communion, and this year’s conference, which drew more than 650 bishops to the University of Kent in Canterbury, provided a great opportunity for this to begin in a way that was not the case at the previous gathering. The non-legislative nature of this conference was in many ways a success.

The first three days, which had been set aside as a retreat for the bishops at Canterbury Cathedral led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, set a reflective tone. Following the retreat, each day began with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist hosted by one of the Communion’s provinces. Daily Bible study in groups of around 12 persons from diverse backgrounds followed, and then we met in Indaba groups of about 40 bishops (Indaba taken from the African experience of meaningful conversation between people of good will.) These groups engaged in discussions ranging from the role of bishops in the Communion to the Millennium Development Goals, and sharing our experiences of ministering in our own dioceses and provinces. Afternoons were spent participating in programs covering everything from the MDGs, human sexuality and canon law to hearings on the drafting of the proposed Anglican Covenant and the ongoing work of refining the Windsor Report. Then came Evening Prayer, followed by special presentations by the Archbishop of Canterbury and outside guests on topics such as evangelism, respectful dialogue, the environment, ecumenical and interfaith issues and the challenges that are present in the life of the Communion.

A powerful “coming together event” involving the bishops and their spouses was a mile-and-a-half march through central London in support of the MDGs, ending at Lambeth Palace where Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Williams and Hellen Wangusa, our Anglican Observer to the United Nations, gave impassioned addresses, challenging the Communion and our respective countries to engage in a more meaningful effort to end poverty and to take seriously the call to halve poverty levels globally by 2015. The event was followed by a luncheon on the grounds of Lambeth Palace, and concluded with a garden party at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

All of this was mostly positive, and it gave me the opportunity to describe the polity of the Episcopal Church to bishops from other provinces – how we are governed by the voices and votes of the laity, clergy and bishops and not by the solitary decision making of the bishop or primate of the province. Some African bishops expressed wonderment that American bishops had very little decision making and enforcement power and saw our system as difficult, if not unworkable. One bishop from Sudan came up to me after I spoke at a hearing on the Windsor Report and apologized for his primate’s position on human sexuality. He told me he had been threatened with losing his diocesan oversight if he attended the Lambeth Conference. Others from Africa, India and Asia had not been aware of the incursion of primates and bishops from overseas jurisdictions into the Episcopal Church and were saddened to learn that such behavior was seemingly tolerated by some in leadership positions within the Communion.

It was reassuring to me that many bishops, even those who do not share our understanding of human sexuality in the life of the church, said their disagreement with me and the Episcopal Church was not a “breaking point” in our relationship. Some said they knew in time they would have to be facing the same issue in their own countries, and we all needed to have more conversation about human sexuality in a non-legislative format. All of these reflections, although problematic in some instances, were centered on an optimism that can hold us together as a Communion if we continue to work at it and not remain in isolation from one another. I came away from these engagements with bishops from other provinces with a far clearer understanding of the challenges they face and their near total lack of basic resources to care for their people; resources that we in the West too often take for granted.

What I found troubling was the manner in which the reports from the Indaba and Bible study groups were given, and how the hearings on both the Windsor Continuation study and the Covenant were finally presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his remarks toward the end of the conference. I was troubled because what was reported did not seem to capture the real flavor of what had been going on during the almost three weeks of our time together as bishops. I have always believed that politics plays a huge role in the decision making of the Communion, and the close of the Lambeth Conference was a clear indication that politics trumped the power of conversation, reconciliation and hard work that so many bishops exerted in their time together.

It is my opinion that in order to placate those primates and bishops who chose to absent themselves from the Lambeth Conference and instead attended the GAFCON gathering in Jerusalem, and to quell the growing dissension within the Church of England over the recent decision to ordain women bishops, and the issues of human sexuality in Holy Orders, Archbishop Williams sought what he believed was a middle way that unfortunately continues to marginalize the Canadian and American churches. Once again, more emphasis was placed on the sexuality issue as being the “line drawn in the sand” that threatens Anglican unity, with little attention paid to the invasion of primates and bishops from other provinces who continue to wreak havoc in some dioceses within the Episcopal Church. There was no discussion of the struggle for power within the Communion, so evident in the rhetoric of GAFCON, that would marginalize the historic roots of Anglicanism and the unifying role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. There was far too much recognition of those who chose not to participate in this Lambeth Conference and far too little recognition of those bishops who chose to come; among them some who did not want to have their names released to the press as participants for fear that their boycotting primates would punish them when they returned home.

I believe that this gathering had a great chance to move forward in relationship building, and to some extent, as I have mentioned earlier, it did. But when it came to addressing the pressing needs of the Communion to develop a global Anglican strategy to address the issues of disease, poverty, illiteracy, the environment and state-sponsored violence against civilian populations, this conference succumbed to “blaming the victims.” As in 1998, the victims are those whose sexual orientation happens to be different from the majority. It is far easier to blame our divisions and our inability to act as a united Communion to address pressing global issues on those least able to defend themselves. Blaming the least among us continues to divert our attention away from the issues that threaten the very existence of humankind and the environmental health of our planet.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for sacrifices to be made to keep the garment of the Communion together. And for the American and Canadian churches, that clearly means sacrificing once again the full participation of gay and lesbian persons in the life of our church. I for one will not ask for any more sacrifices to be made by persons in our church who have been made outcasts because of their sexual orientation.

This Lambeth Conference could have been a positive turning point for the Anglican Communion, but instead the powers that be chose to seek a middle way that is neither “the middle” nor “the way.” It will therefore be up to bishops from around the Communion who have continuing partner and companion relationships to work toward a more holistic view of the church. The Anglican Communion must face into the hard truth that when we scapegoat and victimize one group of people in the church, all of us become victims of our own prejudice and sinfulness.

In Christ, all things are made new. May the living presence of Jesus Christ empower us all to be a part of this new creation and may the Anglican Communion become a new creation, filled with the courage to lead, and an unfailing trust in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that calls each one of us to be part of a new journey, knowing that to fear in such an effort is to be unfaithful to the one who reminds us, “be not afraid for I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”

The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane is Bishop of Washington. This column originally appeared in the diocesan newspaper, the Washington Window.

Comments (1)

It seems to me that the Archbishop of Canterbury has adopted an ostrich-like approach to the sad reality of exclusive-minded conservatives having departed from the Communion. Refusing to admit the reality of what has happened is neither construcive nor faithful. Compromise with those unwilling to compromise is impossible. Continued efforts in that direction seem futile and wasteful, not to mention harmful to those whom the Church has historically and wrongly judged sinful. Your insights from Lambeth are most appreciated.

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