No one else was in
The room where it happened
The room where it happened T
he room where it happened
No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets madeWe just assume that it happens
But no one else is inThe room where it happens.– ”The Room Where it Happened,” From Hamilton

Before coming to the Lambeth Conference, there was a general sense – if you were attending to the emails that came through – of an arc to the logic of the conference. 

There was the pre-Conference work – the bible study groups gathering random groups of bishops from across the communion, done online. 

There was the conference itself, at which, well, more “conversation, prayer, and listening together” would happen.

And then there was (or rather, is) the post-Conference work: the phase in which “outcomes from the bishop’s conversations are shared, and further action taken around the Anglican Communion.”
Now you might notice something missing here. It’s that curious word “outcomes.” As advertised, the Conference itself was never intended to be a time of disputation or decision; and yet somehow it still is meant to produce outcomes that are meant to be implemented. 

The as-advertised language around Phase 2 (the conference itself) was what made the sudden drop of the “Lambeth Calls” documents so soon before the gathering, and the expectation of voting on them, so jarring. Whatever else you might make of the idea, it felt like a pretty dramatic change in intent and purpose, announced very late in the process

That sense of unease was only compounded by the difficulties attending the Lambeth Call on Human Dignity, which – let us not forget this – was changed by the hands of unseen editors after the final submission by its drafting team. So much was made clear when a member of the drafting team – which to that point had been anonymous – broke cover and, doubtless at some cost to his reputation in the eyes of Lambeth Palace, publicly disclosed the discrepancy.
It may turn out to have been ironically fitting that the bishops-only “Lambeth Calls” documents were held in a facility that typically serves as a set of indoor tennis courts. Heaven knows a great deal of volleying has gone on in changing the basic approach to these conversations. The first four calls featured four different ways of expressing opinions; beginning with call 5 (the most contended of all), the organizers wisely jettisoned the idea of voting altogether.

Utterly unsurprisingly, that opened greatly more space for honest and difficult expressions of views between people from vastly different cultures and contexts. How the organizers ever thought their design for the gathering would achieve the objective of encouraging listening and deepening understanding is still a mystery.

But of course, what that meant in the end was that these papers were merely the focus of pressured discussion, conducted by something like eighty tables of eight people in a vast, loud space. It did not present the ideal conditions for a thorough exchange of views – a fact to which I can testify as the note-take for my group (go, 24C!). And the “feedback” opportunity for each paper meant only three or four tables were invited to give comments to the whole gathering, for not more than two minutes each. Most of us never had a chance to speak. 

Decades ago, when people beyond the U.K. traveled to the Lambeth Conference chiefly by sea, the structure of things was quite a bit different. After the 10 days or two weeks of gathering, the bishops would disperse throughout England for two weeks — and then regather for a week at the end. In the meantime, committees that had been named in the first bit of the meeting would collate the input from conversations held on topics discussed, and undertake the work of redrafting.

They would then present the final version of papers to the regathered bishops, who would return to Canterbury for a final week. When you were traveling by ship, you didn’t just come for ten days.

That’s not a process that could be used today. But what we’re left with is hardly a model of transparency. The narrative around “Phase 3” has pretty significantly shifted from “going out into the world to do all the things we agreed to do” to “trying to sort through all that was said by all of your tables on all of these papers and revising them in a way everyone will, by the work of the Holy Spirit, somehow agree on.”

We’re not told where all that will happen, when it will be happening, or – crucially – who will be doing it. Will it be the same drafting groups that wrote the papers initially? (Their identities were finally revealed at the conference; and while women were among them, they were hardly represented.) Will it be the same chiefly white, nearly entirely Church of England leadership that we saw at the microphones during the event? We don’t even know where the room is in which all this will be happening – let alone who will get to be in the room where it happens.

I’ve learned during this meeting to be very sensitive to questions of context, and I see that the questions I’ve just asked are the sort of questions someone in my (European, and American) context(s) would first think of. We expect transparency in process; that is what earns our trust in the processes that shape our lives and to which we ascribe authority. We are suspicious of back-room deals and closed conversations.

And, to be honest, if that is your frame of reference then a great deal about the process leading up to this conference damaged your level of trust in what happenes next. The fact that the authors of the “Lambeth Calls” were never revealed until the last moment; the fact that the deliberation process was changed repeatedly, and on the fly; and (worst of all) the fact that a work of a drafting team was changed without their knowledge or consent before a paper was published.

We’ve talked a lot here about the need to build communion across churches that exist in vastly diverse contexts and cultures, have a wide variation of polities and structures, and have profoundly differing views on the greatest challenges facing the mission and ministry of the church. Yet the instinct of one culture among us – let’s just say, the dominant one – is to deal with that diversity by pushing it to the side when critical decisions have to be made, preferring instead to work by means of a trusted, closed, and closely held, inner circle.

But that way lies danger for the future. The process has to be seen to be believed. If one thing has become plain in the life of this temporary ten-day city, it is that trust depends on openness and the time-consuming, patience – demanding, radically inefficient work of inclusion – in the widest sense of that world.

As we start packing our backs to leave this Bishops’ Brigadoon, let’s hope the organizers of Phase 3 at least open up the doors and windows to let us see inside… 
The Right Rev’d. Mark D. W. Edington
Bishop in ChargeThe Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe