Archbishop of Canterbury speaks on decline, Lambeth Conference and Brexit

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The Church of England faces serious issues: membership and attendance have continued to drop with no end in sight, theologically conservative bishops threaten a massive boycott of the upcoming 2020 Lambeth Conference, and the Brexit question continues to divide British society.

Amidst this, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was interviewed before the attendees of Greenbelt, a liberal Christian conference and festival held annually since 1974. While the festival offers music and art, the conference elements focus upon the role of the church in modern society. During this interview the Archbishop fielded questions from presenters and from an audience.

Welby was quickly asked about decline in the Church of England. As this blog has previously reported, the state church has lost much of its membership. Church officials struggle to identify a new path to restore the church as relevant in the eyes of the British public.

Welby emphasized a diversity of outcomes within the Church. In response to a question regarding church visits and how he sees individual churches truly thriving, Welby said, “Lots and lots and lots [of churches], and for all kinds of different reasons. It’ll never be the same two weeks running.” He also praised the church for its level of engagement with the community.

“The Church generally in this country, not just the Church of England, is more engaged with community now than it’s been at any time really since the Second World War,” Welby asserted. This sentiment echoes a previously reported idea for the Church of England to solve its numbers problem through community engagement. However, as I argued previously, community engagement for its own sake will not revitalize the church and must be coupled with evangelistic outreach in order to be effective.

The Lambeth Conference is a meeting of worldwide Anglican bishops at Kent University. This meeting occurred approximately once every 10 years since the 19th century. The Archbishop of Canterbury, while having no direct power over bishops outside of the Church of England, serves in a first-among-equals role by sending out the invitations and setting the agenda. Due to the nature of the global church and ongoing disagreements about scriptural authority and human sexuality present across the Anglican Communion, the issue of invitations has become politicized. The most recent Lambeth Conference in 2008 was boycotted by many traditionalist bishops due to controversy around the invitation of bishops in the United States who consecrated a bishop in a same-sex relationship. Early reports show that bishops from many of the traditionalist Anglican provinces that boycotted the Conference in 2008 will also refuse to attend in 2020.

In the interview, Welby spoke about having to walk a difficult line in the Lambeth Conference over whether or not to invite the spouses of bishops in same-sex relationships.

“When it became known that I’d invited bishops in same-sex relationships there was a huge outcry from large parts of the church, and significant numbers of bishops said they wouldn’t be able to come. Secondly, when it came to inviting the spouses I pushed it as far as I could” Welby insisted.

While this seems to be conciliatory at first read, it evidences “moving the goalposts”. The 2008 Lambeth Conference was boycotted by many traditionalist Global South bishops because American (Episcopal Church) bishops who had consecrated a bishop in a same-sex marriage were invited. This “conciliatory” approach masks how far the Church of England has moved in a liberal direction and explains the likely boycott by many conservatives in 2020.

Regarding Brexit, Welby took an unexpectedly principled approach. Though he admitted to being against leaving the European Union, he stood by the principle of the matter rather than his personal desires and expressed a belief that the United Kingdom should leave. In his own words, “I came out before the vote and said I’m intending to vote remain… but it is not for [the Church of England] to take sides in a political dispute.” While he lamented that it was only a razor thin majority voting lo leave, he spent most of his time lamenting the extremely partisan and divided state of affairs in the United Kingdom and said that the divisions need to be healed. When an attendee continued to question his position by declaring that the Brexit vote was dishonest and must be reversed, Welby simply said, “I’m a democrat, and we voted.”

While the interview with Archbishop Webly in many cases restated things that he has previously said publicly, there are a few important takeaways. Firstly, the focus on community in the Church of England goes right to the top of the hierarchy, while evangelism takes a back seat at least in the liberal wing. Additionally, Welby seemed less concerned with low numbers of congregants in the Church of England than the presenters were. Secondly, though it was pitched as a conciliatory measure, invitations to the Lambeth Conference continue to be seen as divisive. Finally, the controversy surrounding Brexit over the past few years has done little to change the Archbishop’s mind on the matter. Though he would prefer to stay, he is still committed to the ideals of democracy. Archbishop Welby has taken the path of least resistance in an increasingly liberalized culture, and his plans for growth lack the force needed to restore the Church of England to prominence.