Doing the Lambeth Walk: Is it worth it?

Heat, but not much light.

There is beginning to be a bit of heat generated concerning the next Lambeth Conference, set for 2020. 

The Lambeth Conference meets about every 10 years, barring war among nations or infighting among member churches. Ten years out from the last meeting would have meant meeting in 2018, but it seemed inauspicious to do so. So this time the gap is twelve years, not ten. The matter of auspicious timing is still in contention.

Controversies in the Communion at the time of the last Lambeth Conferences led to invitations being withheld and/or bishops refusing to attend.  Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire was not invited because gay and Bishop Martin Minns, a bishop in the new Anglican Church of North America, not in communion with Canterbury but claiming to be Anglican, was not invited because he is not a bishop in the Anglican Communion.  A number of bishops boycotted the meeting because the bishops of the Episcopal Church were in attendance.

This time around, with a new Archbishop of Canterbury in the seat, the ABC  determined (i) to invite all bishops period, and (ii) not invite partners/ spouses of those who are gay or lesbian.  Again some bishops part of the GAFCON movement, are boycotting the meeting.

How many bishops will stay away because those terrible people from churches that in one way or another have affirmed same-sex unions are invited is unclear. There will likely be several hundred who will not attend. How many spouses/partners are struck from the list for being unacceptable is unclear, but it is very small. Maybe three.

But the Anglican Communion leadership will plow on, moving to the date in 2020 when the Lambeth Conference will convene. The engine has been engaged. 

The Secretary General of the Anglican Communion has spoken about all this in a letter. He speaks of "global excitement." Unfortunately, the excitement is dampened by the limitations imposed by the Archbishop and by the boycott from GAFCON. 

Actually, "global excitement" is a bit of a reach. Most churches in the Anglican Communion have other fish to fry and if this mess is any indication of the concerns of the Communion leadership, excitement is hardly the word for how the Lambeth Conference is perceived.

The notion of the Anglican Communion as a worldwide church is misconceived.

For some of us there is a deeper disappointment in seeing all these pronouncements. They seem to arise from the mistaken belief that the purpose of the Anglican Communion is to speak with one voice, as a worldwide Church and that Communion leadership is charged with making that happen.

We Anglicans are in this mess because there has been an increasing temptation to think of the Anglican Communion as a Church that has a particular role as a church among worldwide church bodies, and therefore ought to speak with internal unity. 

The decision to withhold invitations is justified by reference to the resolution of Lambeth 1988 (1.10) and its statements about marriag and homosexuality.  Whatever the opinion of Lambeth 1988, the basic problem is that Lambeth statements and resolutions were never meant to be binding on the churches in the Communion. But for some reason this one has become elevated in a way previously reserved for such foundational documents as the Creeds. This is profoundly disturbing. It makes some, or at least this, Lambeth Conference resolution binding in an almost creedal way.

The Secretary General at the close of his letter writes, that the Conference, the bishops and spouses, etc, will be "blessing to His precious Anglican Communion." I too pray that the Anglican Communion can be a precious "thing" in God's redemptive presence in the world. I also sense that the Anglican Communion is a precious thing. But believing that the Anglican Communion is precious is, at the very least, a mixed blessing.

Precious does not mean essential.

If we are not careful Anglicans can come to the conclusion that we are essential. We are not. My sense (of no account as it is) is that we Anglicans are held to be precious in God's eyes not because we are essential, but because we know we are one way of being Christian, not the only way. We know we are a provisional community of provisional churches. We may not be the best, and we certainly are not the only, answer to the question, "what is the church?" We are the answer for particular communities whose histories are informed by the Church in England.

But what IS precious about the Anglican Communion is precisely that provisionality. 

This is why the Anglican Covenant is both unnecessary and contrary to what makes us precious. We are not a church with a particular covenant of its own, but rather a community of churches sharing a covenant not their own, but of the church catholic. That is, our covenant is the baptismal covenant and the symbol of that covenant found in the Creed. What we do in our several Anglican Churches is live out the implications (as we understand them) of those primary covenants and symbols. 

The terror of the faith is that we ought to proclaim as central only that for which we are willing to empty our selves, to die for, to commit to fully.  To believe that Jesus is God present with us is worth my life. That is entirely different from my level of belief in the Anglican Covenant statements concerning theological and ecclesiastical unity and conformity. 

I do not fault the Secretary General for being concerned for a peaceful meeting at Lambeth, to which bishops of very different theological sensibilities might come. That is, in part, his job.  But the Archbishop of Canterbury has made that job harder by proposing to exclude those who are viewed as "the problem."  The Archbishop of Canterbury, both the current and the last ABC, has tried to make Lambeth Conference "clean" by sweeping out bishops, and now spouses, who are "problems."  He has tried to make the Conference bearable by making a few adjustments. 

That is, of course, a really bad idea.

Since the original purpose of the Lambeth Conference was to provide bishops a chance to talk, and not something formally including their significant others, I suggest the Archbishop retract the invitation to spouses, period. 

Should that not happen (and I have no particular hopes that it will) I see this whole exercise as yet another reason to consider Anglican Communion self-image to be badly deformed and the Anglican Communion as an increasingly irrelevant idea.

The President of the House of Deputies in TEC, The Rev. Gay Jennings, just spoke this week at the meeting of Executive Council on this matter. She said, 

"I hope that there is still time to resolve this situation and ensure that all bishops’ spouses will be invited to the Lambeth Conference. But if that is not possible, I think that the day is coming when we will need to take a hard look at where and how we invest the resources of The Episcopal Church across the Anglican Communion." (emphasis mine)

One possibility for resolution of this situation might come from advice offered by the Anglican Consultative Council which will meet early on in 2020. President Jennings is a member of the ACC from TEC. I would suppose that she and others might work up a way forward. Jennings rightly notes in her remarks to Executive Council that, 

"The Lambeth Conference does not get to set policy for the Anglican Communion, and the Primates’ Meeting does not get to set policy for the Anglican Communion, and the Archbishop of Canterbury does not get to set policy for the Anglican Communion. That’s the job of the Anglican Consultative Council."

To the extent that the current mess is a product of policy (as in, "it is the policy of the Lambeth Conference not to invite spouses of bishops in same-sex unions") she is partially right. Still, the Lambeth Conference is invitational, and the invitations apparently go to whoever the Archbishop of Canterbury wishes. 

ACC can influence the policy of the ABC concerning this by the traditional, old fashion, political process in which the control of the funds factors into policy decision. To the extent that the Lambeth Conference is funded through the ACC, it is indeed the ACC that "sets policy," even for the other so-called instruments of communion (The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates). The power of the purse is real, and Jennings dangles the possible use of that power in her remarks.

On another level, however, President Jennings is mistaken. The Anglican Consultative Council does not get to set policy for the Anglican Communion any more than the other "instruments of unity." The ACC gets to set policy for it's work in the Anglican Communion, define who can and can not be a member church in the ACC, and it can exclude member churches from continued involvement with the ACC. But those churches remain churches, and their policies and polity cannot be dictated by any instrument of the Communion. The ACC may set policy, but it cannot determine in any way the policies of the member churches. It can indeed exclude, but that is the extent of its power to "set policy."    

There has been more than enough conversation about Lambeth 1998, 1.10, about the Anglican Covenant and about managing conflict by excluding member churches from this or that "instrument" (as in the punishment of TEC by exclusion from theological committees of the Anglican Communion.) Enough. 
When is enough enough?

Twenty-one years ago now, in 1998 I wrote the following.  They were the closing words of a book, “The Challenge of Change, the Anglican Communion in the Post Modern Era,” published by Church Publishing.

“There will be no enduring Anglican Communion, not if we can help it.  But that is not the point. Being Anglican is simply the way some Christians have tried to work out the implications of baptism in specific times and locations. What we have been will be of value to those who come after, and they will count us as among their ancestors.  In doing so we have been greatly blessed by God.  ...

The vocation of the Anglican Communion is to be a force for greater koinonia, for overcoming the fragmentation of life in a vision of the whole people of God, in a time when fragmentation is what seems to be the rule of the day.  It remains only for us to take heart in our “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” (Heb. 12:1b-2a)”

In the light of what has happened between 1998 and now, 2019, I am convinced that in broad outline the issues I raised then have indeed continued to plague and the church, viewed as an ecclesia (an ordered, canonical, hierarchical institution). The crosses we bear in that context are, I believe, unworthy of our vocation. The Anglican Commuion is, as Archbishop Tutu once observed,"very untidy," but we ought not be in the business of condemning one another because of that fact.

Happily, there are those in the ecclesiastical context of Anglican Churches who see themselves primarily as members of a koinonia, (a community of Christians in fellowship, bound together by common prayer, common care and generous inclusion as family). 

That koinonia continues

Those who sought a tidy worldwide internally coherent church are now facing into the demise of the idea of the Anglican Communion as church.  That is, divided as we are on so many levels, it is increasingly apparent that Anglicans worldwide do not constitute a worldwide church.

Of course, we never have been and were never intended to be, a worldwide church. But for a short while many of us wanted very much to be, along with the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, a worldwide entity with sufficient centrifugal force to hold together institutionally come hell, high water, or the fire next time. Time to give up that desire, if we have it.

Instead we in the Anglican Communion are a loosely held gathering of churches in communion with Canterbury. To pretend otherwise is to miss the point. 

We are provisional on purpose, not by accident.

We can ask, at any point in the untidy world of Anglican Communion doings, "is enough enough?" 

Political decisions to "clean up" the roster of persons invited to Lambeth are both silly and misplaced. The Lambeth Conference was meant to be a meeting of all the bishops of all the member churches of the Anglican Communion. Spouses were an add-on.  If there are problems about which spouses to invite, then invite none. 

But Lambeth, rightly, should not determine for member churches which of its own bishops are to be invited. Invite all bishops. In this the Archbishop at least learned from the previous muck-up. The determination of who are the bishops in a particular church in the communion is a matter for that church. The disinvitation of Bishop Robinson was a terrible mistake, not to be repeated. 

There are many good reasons for wanting this strange and wonderful lump of churches, the Anglican Communion, to continue. But there is no reason to try to establish or maintain the Communion as a  worldwide church. 

I hope Lambeth takes place, and I hope as many bishops as possible make their way there and take time together to reflect and pray and form opinions. But I hope it will not attempt to legislate theological policy binding on the member churches. No more Lambeth 1.10 litmus tests. No new litmus test in an Anglican Covenant. Enough is enough.

1 comment:

  1. I think the Bishop Michael said it best at the most recent royal wedding. As a paraphrase, "if not rooted in love, it won't matter."

    Enough is enough. If we are truly provisional, we will acknowledge the reality, incorporate it, and continue in our provisionality.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.