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Leader: Making something of Lambeth

06 February 2008

“JAMBOREE.” If one word sums up the disjuncture between the GAFCON bishops, as we shall have to get used to calling them, and the rest of Anglicanism, it is this. The Archbishop of Nigeria, the Most Revd Peter Akinola, used the word this week to describe the forthcoming Lambeth Conference. In the normal run of things, it is hard to imagine anything less like a jamboree than a three-week meeting of bishops. Still, the suggestion was that the meeting in Canterbury had no serious purpose, and could be safely ignored by the GAFCON crowd who, by contrast, would be engaged in the vital business of shaping the future of the Church. The image is a caricature, and it is a shame that an archbishop should use it.

The publication of the second draft of the Anglican Covenant alone proves how much work there will be to do in Canterbury, and how much effort is going into establishing secure grounds for unity. Reservations about the whole Windsor process persist, as critics challenge the plan to introduce a structural hierarchy to the Communion as a whole, calling it unworkable and ill-conceived. These are precisely the reasons why what is needed now is a face-to-face meeting rather than further additions to the present rash of statements and communiqués.

With hindsight, a key shift in the conservatives’ position came when they began to disparage debate. In their view, and despite the listening exercise begun at the last Lambeth Conference, the value of further dialogue, on the subject of sexuality in particular, was pointless. It is possible to have some sympathy for this view: most of the talking since the Lambeth resolutions of 1998 has been aimed at persuading rather than understanding. But to withdraw from engagement is mistaken on two counts. First, because without debate there cannot be trust. The success of the tripartite talks in Liverpool depended on mutual respect, the fruit of working together on the anti-slavery issue. Second, as Bishop Jones suggests, without trust there cannot be debate. Despite the Archbishop of Sydney’s assurances, non-attendance at Lambeth will be a serious declaration that his group of Anglican bishops wishes to pursue a different path, because, to put it bluntly, they do not respect many of their fellow bishops, and see no reason to work at building understanding or trust.

In the light of this wholesale withdrawal, there is an irony about the continued exclusion of the Bishop of New Hampshire, the Rt Revd Gene Robinson. Now that many of the conservative bishops have withdrawn from the Lambeth Conference, the reason for his exclusion seems to have evaporated. The acceptance of an invitation has become an expression of willingness to debate the issues that have been dividing the Communion. The presence, then, of an openly gay bishop in such a forum would be an asset, and there would still be a strong enough conservative presence in Canterbury to make this a meaningful dialogue. If Dr Williams does not feel he can impose Bishop Robinson on the Conference, perhaps the Conference can make it one of its first acts to extend an invitation.

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