Ethics and policy for invitations to Lambeth 2020


Andrew Goddard writes: Last month Archbishop Justin made his first public statements about his invitation policy for the Lambeth Conference in 2020.  He is reported as having told The Times:

Well over 90 per cent of the Anglican Communion are conservative on issues of sexuality. I’ve invited all the bishops, including those in same-sex marriages. And I had to consider…getting as many people as possible there and excluding as few as possible. It’s a lose-lose situation. I had to take what is a really difficult and painful decision to say, in order for the conference to be as representative as possible and get all the bishops there and not have the risk of some provinces not coming because they felt I was pushing the envelope too far, that I couldn’t ask all the spouses.

Instant reactions on social media showed this brief explanation and justification was unlikely to satisfy the many people, across the range of views on sexuality, who were unhappy when the decision was originally announced (see for example Marcus Green’s blog). It is important to consider why that is the case, what these comments reveal about how decisions are being reached, and whether there is a better way forward.

In making difficult decisions as a leader of a community, in deciding what it is right to do, and in communicating that decision and its rationale there are many different approaches that can be taken.  One spectrum is between a calculating pragmatism and a conviction-based policy. There are parallels here to the contrasting poles in moral philosophy between consequentialist ethics in which the end justifies the means and deontological ethics based on simply doing what one ought to do even when it appears likely to have unpleasant consequences.

Calculating Pragmatism

The explanation offered above appears much closer to the pole of calculating pragmatism albeit a rather bleak and despairing one which views the situation as “a lose-lose situation”.  It’s almost as if the challenge is being framed as a sort of ecclesiastical form of the classic trolley problem: if I send out invitations to all bishops and spouses I’ll have started a trolley down a track where it will run over hundreds of conservative, particularly African, bishops but perhaps I can pull a switch (by pulling out a few invitations), and the trolley will then be diverted and only run over two (now three) gay spouses. A “really difficult and painful decision” but clearly the right one if those are the circumstances and how the problem is framed.  That this was how the decision was being framed was already suggested by the earlier comments of Kevin Robertson, one of the gay bishops whose husband was not invited.  He reported his private conversation with Justin Welby (before the election of a same-sex married priest as Bishop of Maine) in these words – “He said to me there are only two of you in the communion in this situation, you and Mary, and he said if I invite your spouses to the Lambeth Conference, there won’t be a Lambeth Conference”.  A similar formulation was reported in the defence offered before the start of the ACC:

The most painful part, to me, of the decisions that have to be made, is that I know that, at every moment that I write a letter or make a decision, I am making a decision about people — and that there is no decision that will result in nobody getting hurt. If I’d decided differently on the decision about same-sex spouses — and it hurt a lot of people, by the way — I would have hurt a huge number of people elsewhere in the Communion. And there wasn’t a nice solution which I looked and thought, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that, I’ll take the nasty solution.’ It’s not as simple as that.

The major problem with such a way of thinking and explanation for a decision is that it sounds horribly like that offered by the high priest Caiaphas according to John 11:50 – “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish”.  And that is how the policy and its rationale are being heard by many Anglicans.  They are understandably outraged that it might be thought better, despite being committed to “radical Christian inclusion”, to exclude a few gay spouses just to reduce the risk that the Lambeth Conference not happen or the Anglican Communion disintegrate further.  Once again, it appears to them, gay and lesbian Christians are being viewed as expendable, a small enough minority to be sacrificed to placate the conservative majority.

Conviction Policy: Whose Justice?

The approach at the alternative end of the spectrum is that of conviction-based policy.  It was brilliantly summed up by the then Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, in the face of criticism when he appointed Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading.  Although I disagreed with the appointment I had great respect that in insisting on his decision Bishop Richard was putting into practice, within his outlook, the principle “let justice be done though the heavens fall”.

The problem with Lambeth invitations, as with the appointment to Reading, is that we need to ask “Whose justice?” and the answers are very different and fundamentally incompatible.

For many Anglicans the demands of justice are clear as shown in the recently launched campaign for equal marriage in the CofE whose open letter to the bishops protests against discrimination and asks “How can we effectively share the good news of Jesus Christ and the love of God when we ourselves behave unlovingly and unjustly?”.  This understanding is also what has led the University of Kentwhere the Lambeth Conference meets to protest against the Archbishop’s policy and state that “Council members were clear that exclusion of same sex spouses, on grounds of orientation, would be contrary to the values of the University”.

For many other Anglicans, however, the demands of justice are not understood with reference to categories of marriage equality and sexual orientation but determined from the way of righteousness which God has revealed in Scripture and built into creation and which they understand to include limiting moral sexual behaviour to within the marriage of a man and a woman.  For them the problem with the current invitation policy is not focussed on the exclusion of a few spouses.  Their problem is the fact that the Archbishop has, in a break with past precedent, “invited all the bishops, including those in same-sex marriages”. He seems thereby to view biblical and Communion teaching on marriage and sexual holiness as a matter of indifference (adiaphora) even though the ACC’s focuson “going deeper in intentional discipleship” highlights the importance of a shared moral vision.

The former group, following this “let justice be done” approach, would say justice requires all bishops and spouses to be invited even if the Lambeth Conference therefore falls. The latter group, following this approach, would – even if the Lambeth Conference therefore falls – not invite either partner in a same-sex marriage and likely also disinvite all bishops, whatever their marital status or sexuality, who have approved same-sex marriage.

Which rationality?

In thinking about the invitations to the Lambeth Conference and disagreements about the decisions already made it is important to consider these two different forms of rationality – calculating pragmatism and conviction policy.  Is the argument about the invitation policy an argument within a particular form of rationality and how to apply it or is it between different approaches and which one to apply?  The limited explanations so far offered show the need for greater clarity here.

The words of Archbishop Justin appear to present the decision as a calculated, painful, pragmatic compromise.  As we’ve noted, many reject this approach but within this approach serious questions can also be raised about the political calculation: Given, as he acknowledges, “Well over 90 per cent of the Anglican Communion are conservative on issues of sexuality” is it realistic to think that simply by excluding three spouses in a same-sex marriage but nevertheless inviting “all the bishops, including those in same-sex marriages” he has significantly reduced “the risk of some provinces not coming because they felt I was pushing the envelope too far”?  To return to the ecclesiastical trolley problem – is there not the likelihood that, having pulled the switch so the trolley hits the gay spouses, we will discover that the trolley then continues down a track which loops back so that it still runs into hundreds of conservative bishops anyway?

In contrast to the Times interview, the original explanation from the Secretary General of the Communion, appeared to be more of a conviction-based policy:

Invitations have been sent to every active bishop. That is how it should be – we are recognising that all those consecrated into the office of bishop should be able to attend. The invitation process has also needed to take account of the Anglican Communion’s position on marriage which is that it is the lifelong union of a man and a woman. That is the position as set out in Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Given this, it would be inappropriate for same-sex spouses to be invited to the conference.

Within this approach there is a potential principled logic on the basis that these three individuals are not bishops’ spouses according to Communion teaching and so are not being invited on that basis.  But if this is the rationale then why is the Archbishop not offering this explanation and defending this line of reasoning?  The approach does however still raise a number of serious questions as to its coherence (as I have already set out in some detail here, building on an earlier account here). A central one of these is again highlighted in a 2018 interview with the Chief Executive Officer of the Lambeth Conference Company, recently reposted on the ACO website:

There will be differences in 2020. Every active bishop from around the Communion will be invited. But there won’t be a spouse’s conference running in parallel. Instead the intention is to run a joint conference. We see that bishops and their spouses often have a joint ministry so we want to equip them both, rather than separate off the spouses.

Why, if this is a single conference, designed to support a joint ministry, does the Lambeth 1998 resolution and its teaching only have a bearing on the invitations to non-bishops attending the joint conference but not to bishops?

A Principled Pragmatism?

In reality, of course, decision-making is not able to be divided simply into one of these two poles on the spectrum.  Calculated pragmatism, for example, involves devising the best means to secure certain ends and those ends are often sought because of deep principles.  It is important to see that there is a clear principle embedded within the Archbishop’s strongly pragmatic approach:

I had to consider…getting as many people as possible there and excluding as few as possible…

Here we see a very strong and important principle guiding his decisions: it is shaped by his commitment to reconciliation and his vision of Christian unity.  The problems with it are that it is expressed in crude numerical terms (“as many people as possible…as few as possible”), a simple dichotomy between “getting there” and “excluding”, and an assumption that we know what it is people are either getting to or being excluded from (“there”).

Must it be “a lose-lose situation”? Principled Pluralism

If we approach the deep disagreements in the Communion (such as those summarised above with reference to how we determine what is just and right) in this way, attempting to solve them by some form of calculating pragmatism which is willing to exclude some in order to maximise attendance at a common venture, then this will almost certainly appear to be “a lose-lose situation”.  It will also appear to many that there are no theological, ecclesiological or moral principles guiding policy decisions.

If, however, it is admitted that the problem is that there are contrasting, competing, and seemingly incompatible, theological principles and visions now present within global Anglicanism then it may be possible to frame the questions in new ways. Across faith communities there is much wisdom that has been learned from inter-faith dialogue and co-operation. These practices have to recognise and work with the reality of deep disagreements and the limits that these create for inter-faith relationships even as they work to build mutual understanding and diminish conflict.  Across the Christian church there is much wisdom that has been learned from ecumenical dialogue and co-operation.  This, too, needs to acknowledge both what is shared in common and what remains in dispute between different Christian traditions and denominations.  Inter-denominational and ecumenical structures need to discern and be clear as to what degrees of agreement in truth exist and hence what degrees of visible communion can be expressed structurally.  These structures will therefore take different forms as Christians seek to journey together as closely as possible even as they also have to remain distinct and so to some degree distant from one another in order for each to bear witness with integrity to what they believe in contrast to some fellow Christians.

If one were to apply the lessons learned from these areas to intra-Anglican gatherings and try to view such meetings through the lens of inter-faith or ecumenical ventures then the question can be reframed into something like

How, given the recent history and current fractured Anglican Communion with impaired and broken communion between provinces and bishops, can the Archbishop of Canterbury structure the Lambeth Conference and issue invitations to it in order both

(a) to gather as many as possible together to express, embody and enrich the highest degree of communion currently possible between them, and also

(b) to enable the expression and embodiment of an even higher degree of communion both in the present and in the future between those – smaller in number – willing and able to pursue such communion on the basis of their wider and deeper shared beliefs?

Such an approach could recognise the reality of theological and moral pluralism among all those who stand in the Anglican tradition but seek to respond to it by means other than a consequentialist, calculating pragmatism which plays off excluding some so as to include others in a single undifferentiated gathering.  This would be a principled approach to pluralism which could draw not only on the wisdom from the experience of inter-faith and ecumenical discussions but also from the riches of recent Anglican (and wider catholic) communion ecclesiology.  In doing so it could apply the already established principles that the Communion has a clear teaching on marriage and sexuality which is still (as the Archbishop notes) overwhelmingly accepted  by most Anglicans and that departing unilaterally from that teaching inevitably has relational and structural consequences as regards a church’s standing within the Communion, because it impairs communion.  But rather than simply imposing one principled viewpoint within a “one-size-fits-all” structure this approach and perhaps letting the heavens fall as a result, this would seek to create a new form of Lambeth Conference.  This would apply these principles learned from other forms of conversation and co-operation across theological difference.  It would seek to create a Conference explicitly structured so as both to gather together as large and diverse a group of Anglicans as possible while also visibly differentiating among them by giving expression in some way to the variable degrees of communion that now indisputably exist among Anglicans as a result of their fundamentally different principled perspectives focussed on issues of marriage and sexual ethics.

Ecumenical postscript

In the last few days, announcements have been made about more invitations– those to ecumenical observers.  This is a long tradition at Lambeth Conferences but it is being stressed that “invitations are being extended to a greater number of Pentecostal and Evangelical Churches and bodies than at previous Lambeth Conferences” and particular attention has been given to invitations to the new province in North America (ACNA), although the response from its Primate shows the problems faced even in describing such decisions without causing offence.  This invitation decision and his response further highlights the need for serious rethinking about the nature and structure of the Lambeth Conference.

The invitations have continued to be structured as if there is a clearly defined and basically united Anglican Communion and then a diverse number of other churches who are in vary degrees of communion with and separation from the Communion and the churches within it.  As a result, all the churches in the former have had all their bishops invited (“we are recognising that all those consecrated into the office of bishop should be able to attend”) while all the churches in the latter are only invited to send a certain number of observers.

In his Presidential Address to ACC, Archbishop Justin said

The miracle of the Communion is that through the work of Jesus Christ alone we are made one by the grace of God alone, not by our choice or our selection. For that reason our unity is a call of obedience in Christ. Through unity the beauty of the Communion is increased and is a blessing to the world, and our unity will draw us towards the unity of the whole Church, through which alone the world sees the truth of Christ.

But “the work of Jesus” through which “alone we are made one by the grace of God alone, not by our choice or our selection” is not a “miracle of the Communion” but of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.  The Communion and the churches within it are but a small and themselves increasingly internally divided part of the one fragmented and wounded body of Christ.  They cannot claim for themselves the work of Jesus or appeal to their own obedience to Christ or speak of “our unity” as if they are a more united or more privileged part of the whole church.  The “beauty of the Communion is increased and is a blessing to the world” and “will draw us towards the unity of the whole Church” only if we are honest about the broken reality of our own common life and only if we seek a unity which includes a reference to truth.

It is the lack of unity in truth which explains the historic distinction at Lambeth Conferences between Communion bishops and ecumenical observers and which underlies the rationale for this new set of distinct invitations.  But this lack of unity in truth now marks the churches, bishops and Instruments of the formal Communion as well – we are tragically becoming less of a Communion and more of a gathering of ecumenical partners. This has been recognised to an extent by the Primates of the Communion making clear in 2016 and reaffirming in 2017 that representatives of certain provinces:

no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

Furthermore, in a manner unprecedented at any previous Lambeth Conferences, many provinces are now in fuller communion and greater unity in the truth with ACNA than they are now with a number of other Communion provinces.

In short, the classic, relatively clear, distinction between Communion bishops and ecumenical observers which has shaped invitation policy no longer makes any sense given the reality of the (in many cases diminishing) degrees of communion existing between various Anglican churches.  Using these categories therefore as a tool to address the recent divisions within global Anglicanism not only lacks coherence as conviction policy but risks increasing those divisions and so is a questionable form of calculating pragmatism.

Conclusion: What sort of invitation to what sort of Conference?

Perhaps the underlying problem here is that in our confused context we have no clarity and no seeming coherence as to the structure and rationale of the Conference and the varied invitations to it.  In some cases we are continuing with past processes while in others we are changing those, sometimes significantly.  As a result, each set of invitations is increasingly becoming the focus of further confusion and conflict.  Currently there are three categories of invitation but the distinctions between them in terms of practical involvement at the Conference and the ecclesiological rationale for these distinctions and for the various invitation policies remains unclear.

In relation to Communion bishops, all have been invited in a break with past practice (as set out hereespecially in section C).  This is despite the fact that by their actions many have acted in violation of the principles set down at the 1920 Conference a century ago that the churches of the Communion

are indeed independent, but independent with the Christian freedom which recognises the restraint of truth and love. They are not free to deny the truth. They are not free to ignore the fellowship.

As a result of these actions not apparently having consequences in relation to Lambeth invitations, although over 500 bishops and nearly 400 spouses have accepted invitations, it seems likely that at least 200 bishops will decline to attend on principle while some attending may make clear their impaired or broken communion.

In relation to spouses, in a break with past practice they are being invited not to an overlapping Spouses’ Conference but to a single joint conference.  It appears, however, that they will be excluded from certain parts of that conference and those spouses who are legally married to a bishop of the same sex are wholly excluded.

In relation to ecumenical observers, many (perhaps even most) Communion bishops invited to the Conference are formally in fuller communion with some of the churches in this category than they are with a number of the other Communion churches and bishops (while other Communion bishops are not in communion and in long-running legal battles with them over church property).  It is unclear how their role at the Conference will be different from that of Communion bishops and their spouses.

If that were not confusing enough, when it comes to any decision-making at the Conference (about which there are at present no public details) one assumes that the spouses and ecumenical observers will not participate.  However, neither will all Communion bishops unless there is a reversal of the decision of the Primates in 2016 and 2017. And so there is a further, perhaps even more contentious, decision about differences among invitations that needs to be drawn and defended at some point.

The former bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, wrote that the Communion “resembles a spilled bowl of spaghetti” and messiness will inevitably mark Lambeth 2020.  There are, however, ways of thinking about, describing, and responding to our current mess (I think, for example, of The way of Anglican communion: Walking together before God drawing on Lambeth 1920) which offer a better path for the Lambeth Conference than that currently on offer in occasional official statements.

What we urgently need is the construction and articulation of a coherent and compelling vision that has theological and ecclesiological integrity, is honest about the painful lived reality of our common life, and is in continuity with the responses developed in recent decades and what the Communion’s General Secretary has recently summed up as “the principle of walking together at a distance as a means of recognising and addressing difference of understanding and practice across the Communion”.  Once we have such a vision we can perhaps develop conviction policies on specifics and even find a way towards a “win-win” situation which has a greater possibility of reaching the Archbishop’s goal of “getting as many people as possible there and excluding as few as possible”.