Between July 26 and August 07, Anglican Bishops and their spouses from around the world gathered at the University of Kent, England to engage in discussions on the theme God’s Church for God’s World – walking, listening and witnessing together. Discussions, guided by prayer, reflection and fellowship, along with visits to Lambeth Palace, worship at Canterbury Cathedral, a tour of London by boat, inspired the bishops to make calls for action by Church and society. Guided by critical thinking on pre-conference material prepared by bishops, lay people and academics, bishops reflected on these calls focused on nine areas to determine the extent to which issues and activities in local and global contexts are relevant to the operations of God’s Church in God’s world. With spouses and Bishops reflecting together in Bible study and retreat on the first Epistle of Peter, steps were taken to discern what the Spirit is saying to the Church in these challenging times. Of course, with the recognition that no monopoly on the work of the Holy Spirit is to be claimed by any one religious tradition, bishops and spouses, led by Archbishop Justin Welby and his wife Caroline, maintained open, honest and challenging discussions which resulted in very successful engagements and commitments to engaging in mission and ministry in the world.
Nine areas of discussion or calls focused on Mission and Evangelism, Reconciliation, Safe Church, Environment and Sustainability, Christian Unity, Interfaith Relations, Human Dignity, Anglican Identity and Discipleship. Dialogue around these issues, some of which were viewed in controversial ways, such as Human Dignity, caused some amount of tension, especially in relation to human sexuality as liberals wished to repeal resolution 1:10 and conservatives wanted to excommunicate dioceses and provinces which blessed same sex unions. In the end, however, the bishops agreed the calls provided scope for ministry and mission and once there was openness to the work of the Holy Spirit changes, positive developments and renewed relationships could emerge in the medium to long term.
For example, the Call focusing on Human Dignity, which was facilitated by the Archbishop of the West Indies, Rt Rev Dr Howard Gregory, concerns were raised about issues relating to human sexuality and the matter of blessing same sex unions. At the same time there were a number of other issues such as the establishment of an Archbishop’s Commission for Redemptive Action (ACRA) to address gender justice, cultural diversity, sexuality, and reparations among other things. Human sexuality was, therefore, not the substantive issue in the Call for an emphasis on Human Dignity, rather the importance of valuing and respecting people made in the image and likeness of God, especially with reference to resolution 1:10 which puts the understanding of same sex relations in Biblical and theological perspectives, while at the same affirming that at the last conference most Bishops held to this common view. This position, however, does not suggest that all Bishops, Provinces and Diocese agree to the terms of resolution 1:10. At the same time, there is no denying there is a critical mass of Anglicans who are in support of the views expressed in the resolution hence the need for dialogue and openness to the work of the Holy Spirit which was affirmed at the last conference and reaffirmed at this one as an essential part of the collective witness of the Anglican Communion.
Here it is useful to remind readers that the Anglican Communion is not a Church as we think for example about the Catholic Church with the Pope as its head. Rather, The Anglican Communion is a fellowship of independent Churches drawn together for the first time in 1887 to address a very difficult and challenging problem. In response to a Bishop in Southern Africa which took the Bishop of London to court on a matter relating to polygamy at which the Bishop of London lost on appeal to the Privy Council, with the court ruling that all local Churches are autonomous and are therefore in their right to make decisions in their best interest. Since then Bishops in the Anglican Communion have been gathering every time years but with the understanding that the autonomy of the local Church must be respected at all cost.
In the Lambeth Conference this year there was no avoiding the challenges which emerged from local Churches such as those in Nigeria and Tanzania that do not share the views of others in the Anglican Communion. A variety of views as well as points of differences are expected and in a dialogue of this nature, and through the parliamentary style of debates and the issuing of resolutions was not used this time around, nonetheless, Bishops agreed the nine topics provided general principles which could be made applicable and workable in different ways in their local contexts. This approach to respect for individual autonomy moved Bishops and their spouses beyond talk into action and a commitment to return to their dioceses and provinces to do the work of God and the people entrusted to their charge.
In the final analysis, therefore, the Lambeth Conference this year needed to face up to some of the challenges of the past, such as chattel slavery and the issue of reparation. It took into account the rape and abuse of children, women and the elderly and the continued threat of diseases and global warming. With these as real threats to the survival of the planet, the conference reflected on the theme God’s Church for God’s World – walking, listening and witnessing together with a view to forging a path towards growth in worship and witness in a context in which a large number of persons have given up on Church and frankly some have no interest in being part of a religious institution. Nonetheless, with countless others looking for meaning and purpose in life and with the understanding that religion does provide such benefit, there is hope for positive outcomes which are anticipated beyond the conference.
Rt Rev Garth Minott is the Bishop of Kingston.