Bishop of Brechin on the Lambeth Call controversy: “what is going on?”


This is a rather niche post, but as a bishop attending the Lambeth Conference this week, I have been giving much thought to the publication last week of a document containing text of ‘Lambeth Calls’.

These have the stated purpose of guiding the careful discussions at the conference.  I’m maybe a cynic, but I was a little suspicious of a process where each ‘Call’ is rooted in ‘…what the Church Catholic wider teaches on this matter…’ and then giving ‘…a summary of what Anglican churches have taught about it…’ (p.3 of the document).  Even that is a nuance of guidance from June 2022, which said that Calls would contain ‘…a summary on what the Christian Church has always taught about these matters…’ (my emphasis). This felt like setting up the same old conflict on matters of culture and sexuality.  But I was assured that there was nothing to worry about: the discussions would be careful and gracious.

Then the Calls document was published. With one (of the ten Calls), entitled ‘Human Dignity’ containing a statement about the ‘whole mind’ of the Anglican Communion being against same sex marriage, and a stated aim of re-affirming the Lambeth 1998 I.10 declaration against LGBT inclusion (that is my perspective of it).  We were also told that we would be ‘voting’ electronically on the text of ‘Calls’, with the options being ‘This Call speaks for me. I add my voice to it and commit myself to take the action I can to implement it.’ Or ‘This Call requires further discernment. I commit my voice to the ongoing process’. That appeared in email inboxes late at night (UK time) last Monday (18th July) and after a day or two of slow burn, erupted into a furore in progressive Anglican Provinces.

Back on 7th July, prior to the release of the ‘Calls’, there was a press release from Archbishop Justin Badi of South Sudan, chair of the traditionalist ‘Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches’ (GSFA). This was picked up in the Church Times on 13th July: and suggested that ‘orthodox’ (i.e. traditionalist) bishops at Lambeth should demand ‘re-affirmation’ of Lambeth 1998 I.10.  The tone of the release and the video is very direct, focused on unity of ‘orthodox’ bishops at Lambeth and presents ‘biblical faithfulness’ as an alternative to e.g. LGBT affirming Provinces and their polity and theology. This release and an earlier release (5th July) proposing prayer campaigns appear intentionally very partisan: setting up a ‘side’ and praying for success for ‘orthodox’ Bishops at Lambeth.

The release of the ‘Calls’ document feels, given the timing, like this partisan request has been granted, at the last minute, in advance of the conference. This seems to be confirmed by Bishop Kevin Robertson, Assistant Bishop in Toronto (and himself a progressive bishop, who happens to be in a same-sex marriage) stating on Facebook (24th July) that he, as a member of the group that drafted the ‘Human Dignity’ Call, did not recognise the text added to the document on re-affirming the 24-year-old Lambeth resolution on human sexuality, or the statements about the ‘whole mind’ of the Anglican Communion.  He strongly distances himself from the ‘Call’ as presented but hopes it is changed rather than rejected. 

So what is going on?

I travel to Lambeth in less than 24 hours, and I must confess to feeling misled and manipulated.  I feel misled, with what appears to be a late change to add a deliberately controversial motion to an otherwise nuanced and careful document.  Issuing a 60-page document barely eight days before the conference feels like a loaded and controlling approach.  The newly announced electronic voting on all the Calls also feels like we were misled: any binary process like this does not have the subtlety to allow nuanced answers, and a binary process with no option of a definite ‘no’ feels manipulative. Is it calculated to be so late we dare not decide to publicly boycott the process? 

Some people (mainly on Anglican progressive social media) suggest this is the wolf at last revealing himself from his sheep’s clothing (gendered language intentional).  The ‘old enemy’ of a homophobic institution was always there, they say!  And there have been howls that this is just naïve or stupid, to make such an extreme change and offend so many progressives or centrists in the church.  Will this split the Anglican Communion for good, we hear, with a progressive threat of departure this time, rather than the usual threat of conservative-led schism?

But those who lead the Anglican Communion are far from naïve or stupid.  There is a great deal of subtlety in the way that Anglicanism operates in a highly politicised system of influence, finance and relationship. Power and authority are constantly negotiated and re-negotiated.  

Archbishop Welby (Image: Archbishop of Canterbury Website)

So, again, what is going on?  At this stage, I really don’t know. I will travel to Lambeth determined to engage well with the matters in the ‘Calls’, in respectful, gracious dialogue.  And I am determined, with my Scottish colleagues, to work to amend the ‘Human Dignity’ Call to something we can all prayerfully live with.

As I travel, I ask myself, is it possible that the inclusion of material that is just so absolutely unacceptable to a significant proportion of bishops attending Lambeth is to try and ensure that it actually fails?  Or is it a simple error of judgement, misreading how many, many bishops will react? 

Or is there genuinely a conservative heart at the centre of policy in the Anglican Communion, that is vastly at odds with the cultural context of so many churches in so many Provinces? And a conservative heart that wishes that to be strongly re-affirmed in 2022?  I do hope not, otherwise, that might just well be that…