Bishops assemble at Canterbury

Warm welcome to Anglican bishops
The Hospitality Initiative – Lambeth Conference 2022. Photo the Lambeth Conference

They are coming together in Canterbury from all over the world today: some 650 Anglican bishops who are delegates to the Lambeth conference, plus 3,000 others including spouses, volunteers, staff and media. This is the 15th such conference since 1867, and the fifth one since 1978 to take place at the University of Kent.

The University is proud of its hospitality. Its conference website boasts:

We are set in over 300 acres [120 hectares] of beautiful parkland overlooking the historic city of Canterbury and its iconic Cathedral. Our fantastic location, range of accommodation and extensive facilities make us the perfect choice for groups, conferences, events and holidays. We have over 20 years of experience delivering exceptional events for our clients, and our passionate team are proud to be the winner of the Group Travel Award for ‘Best University Accommodation for Groups’ every year since 2008.

Lambeth Conference 2022

Canterbury, of course, has a long tradition of hospitality for pilgrims coming to visit the famous shrine of St Thomas in medieval times. It could be said that the city has more than a thousand years of experience of Christian group hospitality. This, with the Cathedral and the universities, is probably the main source of jobs and income for a large proportion of the population.

The notion that Canterbury Cathedral is the ‘mother church’ for Anglicans is strong in Kent, with the history of St Augustine. But things look different up north with a different missionary history from St Aidan and Lindisfarne, and dioceses under the Archbishop of York.

Where are the Anglicans?

In order to understand the proceedings of the Lambeth conference, it may be helpful to first have a look at the comparative numbers of provinces and dioceses in different parts of the world. As the third largest denomination of Christians in the world (after the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox) Anglicans number about 80m. There are 38 provinces, each led by an Archbishop (or a Presiding Bishop or Bishop Primus). There are Anglican provinces in every continent (except Antarctica). The largest by members are (in millions):

Nigeria 5
Australia 3.7
USA 2.5
S Africa 2.4
Uganda 2.2
Kenya 1.5
Rwanda 1.2
Tanzania 1

England is listed as with 25m which possibly means members baptised in the Church of England. But it is known that there are now only about 854,000 who attend church services weekly (compared to one million Roman Catholics).

The Church is a theocracy

In order to understand proceedings and voting at the Lambeth Conference, it is important to set aside entirely democratic assumptions. Christian churches have grown out of religious inspiration that, in the New Testament, has no reference to voting. There is no mention of Jesus’ disciples voting on matters, even on decisions such as what and how to eat together.

Nor did the early church, as depicted in Acts or the Epistles, appear to decide things by voting. In controversial matters, they relied on the guidance of the voice of the Lord, such as coming to Saul/Paul in a fit (Acts 9) and Peter in a trance (Acts 10). These became inspirational leaders of early churches (assemblies or ekklesia).

Supervised by bishops

The first mention of a bishop (episkopos in Greek, which means an overseer) is in Paul’s letter (1 Timothy 3) where he lists the necessary attributes of a good bishop “above reproach … faithful to his one wife … hospitable and a good teacher … have a good reputation with the non-Christian public…” It is not clear how such overseers of the budding Christian congregations were chosen.

Once there was state capture of the Christian Church, after Emperor Constantine, bishops were often appointed by royal patronage or dynastic connections. This had become so corrupt by the 16th century Reformation that many Protestant churches refused to have bishops at all. But the Church of England was a project of a monarch, Henry VIII, who retained bishops, still appointed by the monarch, who is the titular head of the Church of England.

In England only

The Queen takes the advice of a nominating committee which includes representatives of the Church of England as well as of the government of the day. Politics are at play here, which the hilarious 1986 episode of Yes, Prime Minister ‘The Bishop’s Gambit’ satirises.

In most other Anglican provinces, depending on their constitutions, the appointment of bishops is an elective process, with votes from the clergy counted separately from votes from the parishes. So one can assume that all the bishops attending the Lambeth conference are trying to reflect the views of those who voted them in.

Not a Vatican Council

They will be well aware of those views as they also have to preside over regular synods which are church assemblies of clergy and laity (parish representatives). Thus the bishops are not under the Archbishop of Canterbury in any way comparable to the position of all clergy in the Roman Catholic church under the authority of the Pope.

This means that the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot rule on doctrine in the way the Pope can. He may be regarded as the first among equals, and certainly has some sway over the timing and agenda of the Lambeth conference, but ultimately each province can decide for itself.

This explains why the current Archbishop, Justin Welby, is so cautious about the controversies that now afflict the Anglican Communion. First he avoided scheduling another Lambeth conference (one was due in 2018 but he declined to call it) and then, when one is called, some controversial figures in the church politics of sexuality have not been invited.

Lambeth directives

The debates at the Lambeth Conference are not like Parliament designed to make binding laws (they can’t bind autonomous provinces!) but they are “Calls” which will then be worked through synods in the various local provinces and dioceses. When the original agenda was issued last week, there were two possible responses for voting, basically either AGREE or WAIT to discern.

No sex, please

The most controversial agenda item is whether Anglican priests may marry same sex couples in church. This first came on the agenda in 1998, when under Lambeth 1.10 it proclaimed “homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture” to the outcry of many liberal Christians who protested that there is no mention of homosexuality in the New Testament, and obscure verses quoted from Leviticus 20:13 are misinterpreted and should not apply today.

This was still so controversial in 2008 that 260 bishops stayed away. This is what Welby wanted to avoid. But the draft text of this call for 2022 inexplicably attempted to reaffirm the church’s opposition to same-sex relationships, with the Call on Human Dignity reading: “It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same gender marriage is not permissible … the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions cannot be advised. It is the mind of the Communion to uphold faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union.”

The Church divided

There has been such an outcry from liberal Christians and Bishops that Welby and the conference organisers have had to back-track. The proceedings now allow delegates to express their views on a Call in three ways, basically, AGREE, DISAGREE and WAIT for further discernment.

What this will reveal, as Welby feared, is the division between the liberal wing of the Anglican communion (Australia, England, N America, S Africa) and the anti-homosexual wing, which includes the huge numbers in the African provinces (see list above). In this way, it is obvious how the churches reflect the prevailing views of their societies and national governments, as in some of these countries (Rwanda, Uganda etc) homosexuality is illegal. 

A large vote for WAIT would just be a prolongation of the dispute. Some homosexual partners have already waited for more than two decades for their marriage in church. 

There are other issues for discussion

Press coverage of this sexy theme will appeal to the gutter press and doubtless this will race around social media, but it is important to note that there will be many other matters discussed during the eight days of deliberations (30 July – 6 August).

Lambeth organisers proclaim that diversity can be a strength:

With people invited from 165 countries of the Anglican Communion, our 12-day conference provides an amazing opportunity to learn from one another, share and receive one another’s story. As we journey through the Lambeth Conference, we invite you to celebrate this diversity and respect one another. 

Programme themes will include mission and evangelism, safe church, Communion, reconciliation, environment, Christian unity, interfaith relations and discipleship. Wider themes will also be considered including ongoing response to a world changed by Covid-19 and the relationship of the Church with the increasing role of science and technology in our lives.

There will be daily press briefings on the items under discussion, and Kent Bylines will try to report on each of these.

Meanwhile – may all the delegates enjoy Kentish hospitality and their visit to Canterbury.


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