Lambeth Calls

On Monday, I will be departing for England for the pomp and pageantry of the Lambeth Conference. This conference is a meeting of the active bishops of the Anglican Communion from all over the world (some 650 bishops from 165 countries are expected this year). Lambeth customarily happens every ten years, but it has been fourteen years since the last one in 2008. The conference scheduled for 2018 was postponed to summer 2020 because of ongoing conflict in the Anglican Communion, and then in 2020 … well, you know what happened in 2020.

The 2022 conference was advertised as a path to reconciliation, because we would not be trying to legislate anything; we would be praying, studying the Bible together, and building relationships. This hope for reconciliation was an attempt to paper over the differences that came into stark view in 1998, when Lambeth Resolution 1.10 “rejected homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture,” and declared that the gathered bishops “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”

Of course, our Episcopal Church (headquartered in the United States but comprising churches in 17 countries) was headed in a much different direction. By 1998, many persons involved in same-sex unions had been ordained, and some dioceses and congregations were already quietly blessing same-sex unions. This difference between our church and many others in the Anglican Communion burst into public view in 2003, when the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, an “out” gay man, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire, and consecrated after receiving church approval at General Convention 2003. His election sparked a series of conflicts, including departures of a number of Episcopalians to other churches. Bishop Robinson was not invited to the Lambeth Conference in 2008, to the consternation of many in the Episcopal Church.

Since then, same-sex marriage has been approved as a trial rite of our church, with accompanying changes to our canons (i.e., our by-laws, or the rules by which we operate). Other Anglican Churches have followed suit, including those in Scotland, Wales, Canada, and New Zealand. Division continues, however. In the Church of England, LGBT clergy are not permitted to marry, though they can enter civil partnerships, and those in civil partnerships have to promise celibacy. Some conservative Anglican provinces in Africa have chosen to boycott this year’s Lambeth Conference in protest of the attendance of inclusive churches like ours.

This year, the four “out” LGBT bishops in our Episcopal Church, plus other LGBT bishops from other provinces of the Anglican Communion, made progress by being invited to the Lambeth Conference – but their spouses were not invited. The host location for the Conference, the University of Kent, declared that they refused to exclude same-sex spouses, so those spouses are permitted to go and stay in the facility – but not to attend official spouses’ events. This exclusion caused much consternation (and my own husband chose not to attend in solidarity with the uninvited spouses). Yet the great majority of Episcopal bishops have chosen to attend, because we were promised that this would not be a legislative gathering, but rather an opportunity to pray, study the Bible, and build relationships across the Anglican Communion. I too felt it was important to attend so that our voices of support for our LGBT siblings could be heard and understood as a Christian commitment.

But then, one week before the conference opened, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby released a “study document” for the conference called “Lambeth Calls.”  The document is a series of white papers on various issues before the church: Mission and Evangelism; Safe Church; Anglican Identity; Reconciliation; Human Dignity; the Environment; Christian Unity; Interfaith Relationships; Discipleship; and Science and Faith. The “Calls” were drafted by an opaque process that the Archbishop claims included many diverse participants, but the only authors listed in the document are nine male bishops and one male layperson, apparently hand-picked by Archbishop Welby. These “Calls” were dropped on us one week before the conference with instructions to study them and come prepared to vote “yes,” or “this needs more discernment;” there is no option to vote “no.”

That is where the uproar started. Buried on page 31 of this 60-page document that we had no input in and that was dropped on us at the last minute, in the section on Human Dignity, is the “call” to “reaffirm” the Lambeth 1.10 declaration that homosexual practice should be rejected as incompatible with Scripture.

Well, of course I am not prepared to “reaffirm” any such thing, nor to “discern” it further. My conviction is to vote a flat-out “no” – but that is not an option in the process they have outlined. A large majority of Episcopal bishops share my view, and the backlash against this opaque process, unfair voting procedure, and underhanded last-minute surprise has been intense. Conversation is happening widely across the church (and, I believe, across other Anglican churches that share our views). I expect that there will be a united approach to this request, which will unfold in the few days between now and August 2, when this “Call” is scheduled for discussion and voting.

The section on Human Dignity is not completely anti-LGBT, as it does call for “deeper work to uphold the dignity and witness of LGBTQ Anglicans” – a clear step forward for many countries represented in the communion. And, in fact, the other nine “Calls” also contain some excellent work and some affirmations I can enthusiastically endorse. Yet neither I nor many other Episcopal bishops appreciate the last-minute invitation to dive back into the conflict over LGBT inclusion that we thought we were avoiding in this conference – a gathering that was supposedly aimed at prayer, Bible study, and relationship building.

Lambeth should be interesting. I’ll update you from time to time as we go along. I ask your prayers for me and for all the bishops as we gather.