Andrew Goddard writes: What are we to make of the recent Lambeth Conference, what it says about the state of the Anglican Communion, and the possible implications of all this for the Church of England? This is the lightly revised text of a talk given to the National Club in September 2022. After sketching the road to the Conference and its undoubted successes, the focus here is on the ecclesiological questions and what the Conference reveals about the Anglican Communion. Using a classic definition of the Communion from the 1930 Lambeth Conference it relates the reality of the current situation after Lambeth to that historic vision by exploring its four central characteristics: sustenance through the common counsel of bishops in conference; mutual loyalty; upholding and propagating the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order; and communion with the see of Canterbury. The latter leads into concluding reflections on what might lie ahead within the see of Canterbury as the Church of England discerns and decides a direction of travel in the light of Living in Love and Faith.

The Road to the Conference

The Conference brought together over 600 Anglican bishops from around the globe, many of their spouses who had their own conference, and dozens of ecumenical guests. It would normally have met in 2018 following the pattern of meeting every ten years and that would also have been just after the 150th anniversary of the first Conference in 1867. The tensions and divisions in the Communion, however, led to it being postponed until 2020. That year marked the centenary of the famous post First World War Conference that issued the significant Lambeth “Appeal to All Christian People” which was so important in subsequent ecumenical dialogue. Covid, however, put paid to that and so it was not until late July this year that the bishops gathered, meeting for 12 days.

Less than two months after it ended it is in many ways premature to offer an assessment of the Conference. This is particularly the case since this time the Conference has been presented as simply the middle of 3 phases: a time of “listening together” through virtual meetings in 2021 and 2022, the “walking together” of the Conference itself, and now a time of “witnessing together” in which conference outcomes and initiatives will be taken forward.

The Conference’s Successes

Although definitive judgments are not possible so soon after the Conference, it is quite clear that in many, many ways it was a great success. Those attending were able to share in fellowship and hear of the joys and challenges of mission and ministry as bishops have seen God at work in their own contexts. Old friendships and partnerships were renewed and new ones established. Scripture was expounded and studied together – particularly 1 Peter which was the focus. Major questions facing the church and the world were discussed in small groups with expert input in plenaries: mission and evangelism, the environment, persecution, safeguarding, human dignity, inter-faith relationships, Christian unity. Those attending worshipped and prayed together several times each day. I think it is also fair to say that many bishops from the Global North were challenged by the faith and witness of bishops from other parts of the Communion and the ways God is powerfully at work. Graham Tomlin tweeted on Day One – “This is Archbishop George from the DRC. Really gracious, humble man. He was telling me about confirming 830 people on one day. Made me feel a bit of a lightweight”. By Day 12 there had been thousands and thousands of similar conversations. 

The amount of good fruit that will come from all those encounters over those two weeks is – and will remain – simply impossible to quantify. It is important that all that follows needs to be set in that context. Not least because it is evidence that God has not given up on the churches and their leaders who gathered in Canterbury this summer. Nor, I believe, on the Anglican Communion that brings them together in gatherings such as the Lambeth Conference. But what we mean by the Anglican Communion and what all this means for the Church of England is far from clear.

Our differences go beyond sexuality

There is a tendency to think that the difficulties in the Communion are simply about sexuality but this, although highlighting one key issue, is I think wrong on a number of counts. The difficulties in relation to sexuality arise because of deeper differences concerning authority, theological method, and of course the interpretation and authority of Scripture both in relation to specific texts and more generally. The differences and disagreements on sexuality are also constantly interacting with differences and disagreements about what it means to be the Anglican Communion and we have competing and incompatible visions of the nature of the church. It is on this latter question – and its interaction with questions of sexuality – that I want particularly to focus when thinking about “after Lambeth” and “what next for the CofE”.

What is the Anglican Communion and how is it doing?

A classic definition of the Anglican Communion comes from the 1930 Lambeth Conference. It reads:

The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common:

  1. they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches;
  2. they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and
  3. they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.

In the light of this I want to ask “So how is it doing?” by exploring further four of the key elements of this definition which are key questions after Lambeth. I will take them in reverse order starting at the end of the definition.

First, that the churches of the Communion are “sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference”

That reference to “the bishops in conference” refers above all to Lambeth Conferences but this Conference and its predecessor under Rowan Williams in 2008 have both been significantly different from previous Conferences. As a result, there are real questions as to in what sense we can still refer to “the common counsel of the bishops in conference”. This relates to two areas – who comes to Lambeth and what they now do there and, in particular, their capacity even to develop “common counsel in conference” as part of the Anglican Communion, let alone for that common counsel to sustain the churches of the Communion and help bind them together. 

In relation to the bishops who gather at the Conference, both in 2008 and this year a significant number of bishops declined the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation (see my earlier, fuller discussion here). The provinces of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda had no bishops present, and this year Kenya also had many including the Primate saying they could not in good conscience attend. We have seen bishops of over 200 dioceses in which are found tens of millions of Anglicans (probably 30% to 40% of those who are “in communion with the See of Canterbury”) refusing to attend two consecutive Lambeth Conferences fourteen years apart! This surely is a serious sign that the “common counsel of bishops in conference” that is meant to sustain the Communion is no longer working as it should. There is also the problem that among those who attended the number of bishops from provinces such as the US, Canada and England is disproportionately higher in terms of number of Anglican worshippers compared to bishops from other provinces, especially in Africa, which are growing but seriously and increasingly under-represented at the Conference.

But the problem is deeper. This is because even those who have attended the last two Conferences have not been able to take “common counsel” together and offer it to the Communion as a whole. All 13 previous Conferences before 2008 produced resolutions. These were signed off by the Conference as a whole having been worked on, often in great detail, within the Conference itself by various groups of bishops, drawing on materials provided to them up to a year or more in advance of the Conference. 

In 2008 there was a conscious decision to have no resolutions but simply conversations, what was called “Indaba”. This year, however, great play was made of the fact that although there would not be “resolutions” there would instead be “Calls” (see here for more details on this change). The management of this process was, however, perhaps the most depressing and shocking aspect of the Conference (which I tracked at the time herehere, and here). Although this new approach was first announced back in 2020 and there have been two years of “listening together” online, the rationale and significance of the proposed Calls was not made clear until early June, less than two months before the Conference. The actual content – the proposed text – of the Calls (not a short document) was only released a week before the Conference began. Then on the eve of the Conference itself, the Call on Human Dignity, touching on the most controversial area of human sexuality, was withdrawn after controversy erupted over what was seen as its conservative content. Major and still unanswered questions were also raised concerning how it was produced. A new wording, with significant changes made in relation to sexuality and what it means to be a communion of churches, was then released as the Conference opened. The whole process further unravelled as each day a different system was used for the Conference to signal its opinion of the Call being discussed that day. This continued until, on Tuesday, day 7, when the rewritten Call on Human Dignity was being considered. Then it was announced that from now on there would be no attempt to gauge the mind of the Conference as a whole on the proposed Calls but simply the collection of feedback notes from each discussion group. On that day the Archbishop of Canterbury also wrote a letter about the Call on Human Dignity and spoke to the whole Conference – very significant interventions in relation to both sexuality and being a Communion explored further below.

So, in relation to this first characteristic of the Communion, there must be real questions asked as to in what sense if any the Lambeth Conference can now be said to enable the Communion to be sustained by “the common counsel of the bishops in conference”.

Secondly, the Communion was based on not simply enabling such common counsel in order to sustain the Communion. It also expected the churches of the Communion to embody “mutual loyalty” in particular towards that common counsel. 

This approach is explicitly contrasted with being bound together by a central legislative or executive authority such as found in Roman Catholic Canon Law or the universal jurisdiction of the Bishop Of Rome. Instead of that, Anglicans have held that “particular or national Churches” (what we would now call provinces of the Communion) are free to “promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship”. 

This is now often described as the principle of provincial autonomy. But that “autonomy” has never meant freedom to act however one wished as a national church or province. The 1920 Conference had famously stated in its encyclical letter to the Communion that the churches of the Communion were “independent, but independent with the Christian freedom which recognizes the restraints of truth and of love”. One of the restraints of love – sometimes described as the “bonds of affection” – was to be this “mutual loyalty”. 

It is this which was lost not long after the 1998 Conference – the last to pass resolutions. It was lost because the famous resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality clearly restated the mind of the gathered bishops as to the teaching of Scripture in this area and the limits they believed this placed on the proper responses of churches within the Communion. The decision of the churches in North America and Canada to disregard this resolution in relation to blessing of same-sex unions, consecrating bishops in such unions, and more recently in relation to the doctrine of marriage, is what has led to the breakdown in relationships. The response of the Communion to this has consistently until now been to call for repentance, reversal, and restraint and, when those appeals have consistently been ignored, to institute consequences for those churches in relation to their place within Communion life.

At this Conference, however, Archbishop Justin appeared to interpret this history in a new way. A way which rather than appealing to loyalty to the common counsel of bishops as it had been expressed in Resolution I.10 from 1998 instead gave emphasis to “particular or national Churches” and their freedom to “promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship”.

In his opening address to the session on Human Dignity he set out where things were in these terms:

For the large majority of the Anglican Communion the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted and without question, not only by Bishops but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live. For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.

For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.

This he described as “the reality of life in the Communion today”. He also stressed that “I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline or exclude a church of the Anglican Communion. I will not do so. I may comment in public on occasions, but that is all. We are a Communion of Churches, not a single church”. 

Although this sought to set out the different perspectives present in the room in a way that would facilitate discussion and seems to have largely succeeded in doing so, at the very least it also appears to abandon the principle of “mutual loyalty” especially to the “common counsel of the bishops in conference” as a key element in defining the Anglican Communion. The 1920 Conference at the end of the passage quoted above stated of the churches that “they are not free to ignore the fellowship”. The consensus of the Communion has been that “ignoring the fellowship” is exactly what innovating churches in relation to sexuality were doing. That had been a major issue at the 2008 Conference. But no mention was made of this by the Archbishop at this Lambeth Conference.

The difficulties have, however, not simply been that some churches appear to have felt “free to ignore the fellowship”. For most of the Communion the developments have also contravened the other summary statement of the 1920 Conference – that churches of the Communion “are not free to deny the truth”.

This leads us back up the definition we began with to the third element in defining the Communion which continues to be a matter of controversy – that its churches “uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order”.

After the initial developments in North America, the Commission which sought to find a way forward for the Communion clearly stated in its Windsor Report of 2004 that “The overwhelming response from other Christians both inside and outside the Anglican family has been to regard these developments as departures from genuine, apostolic Christian faith” (para 28). When the American church went further and changed its doctrine and practice in relation to marriage, the Primates of the Communion at their first meeting under Archbishop Justin in 2016 combined this concern about catholicity with the concern we have just considered about not ignoring the fellowship. They clearly stated that

in keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.

Here we see the seriousness of the gulf between the majority and minority of the churches which Archbishop Justin described. It is not simply a matter of them following a similar pattern of discernment but in different social contexts nor simply a case of them “promoting within each of their territories a distinctive national expression of Christian faith, life and worship”. It is that the majority (or at least a significant part of the majority) see the minority as no longer churches which clearly “uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order” that has historically been one of the common characteristics of all Communion churches. That is why so many bishops could not in good conscience attend and why so many who did attend – connected to the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans – were so concerned about these matters.

Archbishop Justin was clear in the letter he sent during the Conference just before he spoke to the session on Human Dignity that he wanted “to affirm that the validity of the resolution passed at the Lambeth Conference 1998, 1:10 is not in doubt and that whole resolution is still in existence”. This helpfully and encouragingly clarified that the removal of the earlier explicit reaffirmation of the resolution from the first draft Call on Human Dignity did not mean I.10 had reached the end of its shelf-life. But it also gave the impression that it was now simply being left on the shelf, that it should have no real consequences for ordering the common life of the Communion. Despite it representing the common counsel of the bishops in Conference. Despite it stating what they understood to be the teaching of Scripture. Despite it simply reaffirming historic Catholic and Apostolic faith and order in relation to sexual relationships and the liturgy and leadership requirements of the church.

This question of how sexuality relates to “Catholic and Apostolic faith and order” brings to the fore a key question which the Church of England is also shortly going to have to address: How significant are questions about sexual holiness and marriage and hence our disagreements over these matters?

In his third and final Presidential address Archbishop Justin sought to rearticulate something of what it means to be the Anglican Communion, claiming that the Conference had “become a time of intense ecclesiological development, and thinking and reflection for the Anglican Communion”. He did so in part through reference to elements of Catholic Social Teaching. Encouragingly, he included the language of being interdependent which his earlier statements had lacked. He linked this to “the Catholic Social Teaching of solidarity, our mutual support, and by seeking the common good, a third key Catholic Social Teaching principle, we accept a level of mutual accountability without mutual control”. He did not, however, relate this analysis to the recent history summarised above. Nor did he explore whether the actions of certain provinces were in any way “seeking the common good” of the Communion or demonstrating “a level of mutual accountability”. He then described autonomy as “an expression of subsidiarity, the principle in Catholic Social Teaching that we should always work at the most local level possible”. He contrasted this with centralisation. But in relation to subsidiarity the question is always what properly is “the most local level possible” for any particular decision? We see this in relation to EU law within EU countries, we see it currently in debates as to whether the Scottish government is able to call a referendum on independence or whether that power remains with the UK government.

In relation to the church, if we are to draw on these categories for our self-understanding and self-description as a Communion, it must surely be the case that “Catholic and Apostolic faith and order” is not something whose definition can be left to autonomous particular or national churches as “the most local level possible”. No – that is what the churches have in common and not something they are free to adapt or reject as they wish. If – as he seemed to be saying at the Conference – Archbishop Justin now thinks that questions of marriage doctrine are properly matters for each Communion province to determine in their own context, he would then appear to be saying that this is because they are not matters of Catholic and Apostolic faith and order. That is why they can, perhaps even should, be legitimately reformulated locally due to subsidiarity. They are, in technical theological language, adiaphora, matters indifferent. If that is what he is effectively saying, all the evidence is that this contradicts the historic understanding of the Communion, repudiates the framework the Communion has brought to handling these disputes over the last two decades, and is a view rejected by the majority of the bishops of the Communion. For them the Anglican Communion is in the mess it is in because this historic characteristic of churches of the Communion – that they “uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order” – no longer pertains or at least much less clearly and fully pertains, in regard to a number of churches that are officially part of the Anglican Communion and whose bishops were present in significant numbers at the Lambeth Conference.

And so we come to the fourth aspect of the classic definition of the Anglican Communion – that it comprises “duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury”. Here there are four challenges to note which increasingly lead into questions concerning “the see of Canterbury” and the Church of England itself. 

Firstly, the 1930 definition of the Communion made clear that alongside this characteristic there were the 3 characteristics we have just explored. I have suggested all 3 of these have been significantly eroded in recent decades and that the recent Lambeth Conference has not addressed that fact. It may even have in some ways complicated matters further. If that is so, then this fourth element of “in communion with the see of Canterbury” takes on more and more significance. But is this really a sufficient definition of what it means to be the Anglican Communion? Can it even bear the weight it now is having to bear given the varying degrees of collapse of the other historically weight-bearing characteristics?  

This may also explain why a feature of both this and the previous Lambeth Conference has been the massively increased profile and role of the Archbishop of Canterbury within the Conference. This year that took the form of 5 expositions of 1 Peter and 3 Presidential Addresses, the presentation of the text of the Calls, and the significant letter and opening statement in relation to the Call on Human Dignity and questions of sexuality and the Communion. In contrast there was little or nothing that could be in any sense described as expressing the mind of the Conference itself rather than just its President. It is important that this shift is recognised and evaluated and that statements of the Archbishop are not taken as statements of the Conference itself.

Secondly, whatever we think of the sufficiency of “being in communion with the see of Canterbury” what are we to make of its necessity? Is this still a sine qua non in relation to defining Anglicans and the Anglican Communion? 

This is important because alongside the breaking and impairment of relationships between historic provinces within the official Anglican Communion there has occurred the development of new patterns of relationship. The most significant but not the only one of these has been the recognition of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) by many provinces and by the two major international networks of GAFCON and the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans. They now regularly refer to the ACNA as part of the Anglican Communion. But officially it is not part of the Anglican Communion. It is not because it is not “in communion with the see of Canterbury”. Canterbury – ie the Church of England – remains in full communion with The Episcopal Church even though in terms of doctrine it is now more closely aligned with the ACNA. If, as it appears, the other classic characteristics of the Communion have been, if not abandoned, at least relativised, are we right to treat this one as in some sense essential, inviolable and sacrosanct? If it is essential, inviolable and sacrosanct, when can the CofE seek to enter into full communion with the ACNA and the Communion structures begin to explore recognising it as a province of the Communion?

Thirdly, if as I have proposed the Anglican Communion has seen its other three characteristics becoming weaker and more fragile within its common life as a result of the conflicts over sexuality, will the see of Canterbury do anything to secure and revive them? 

Archbishop Rowan sought to do this by commending the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant and speaking of enabling an intensification of relationships for those who wished them. Sadly, in part because of the narrowly successful campaign against it within the CofE, that particular path is now pretty firmly blocked. The decision by the 2016 Primates Meeting to visibly differentiate in a number of ways between Communion provinces which upheld teaching on marriage and those which did not was in some ways an attempt to follow a similar path. The current Archbishop however never seemed to be committed to this approach. His contributions to the Lambeth Conference give no evidence that he will offer leadership that will pursue a form of it in order to address the challenges sketched out here. Indeed, he seems at times to be wishing to move the Communion in the opposite direction where there is a privileging of autonomy over interdependence and mutual loyalty and where there is acceptance of a diversity of teachings in relation to marriage.

The reality is, however, that most of the Communion wish the Anglican Communion to be the sort of Communion it claimed to be in that 1930 definition. If the current structures bear less and less of those marks and the Archbishop of Canterbury will not offer a vision and specific proposals that might restore those characteristics then it is likely that they will develop apart from the see of Canterbury. That should sadden us. But it should not surprise us if we believe that this vision is faithful to Scripture and the calling of the church and that the Spirit remains at work within the churches of the Anglican Communion.

One form of this already is GAFCON and now it looks like the larger Global South Fellowship will adapt and develop the sort of vision that shaped the dropped baton of the Anglican Covenant developed under Archbishop Rowan. They are developing a covenantal structure (with important clarifications here) which would bear the historic marks of the Anglican Communion we have been exploring and their important communiqué at the end of the Lambeth Conference reaffirmed their commitment to this initiative. They are clear they are not “leaving the Anglican Communion” as currently constituted and that they are still in full communion with the see of Canterbury. Nevertheless, they are in effect seeking to breathe new life into the historic vision of what the Anglican Communion is. If the current structures, including the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, cannot either lead or at least work constructively with such an initiative then they may well find themselves playing the part of old wineskins coming into contact with new wine.

And fourthly, and finally, the importance of “communion with the see of Canterbury” highlights the potentially great significance of decisions in the CofE over the next six months or so in relation to marriage and sexuality. 

What Next for the Church of England?

Read it all in Psephizo