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Leader comment: Anglicans on call: the Lambeth Conference and decision-making

17 June 2022

THE position of the Lambeth Conference in Anglican decision-making has always been contentious. A prime reason for the time and money spent assembling bishops from around the world each decade has been to seek a common mind on matters of theology, ecclesiology, politics, and social affairs. The harmony of the early decades after the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 can be ascribed largely to the patina of time. (The Archbishop of York refused to attend the first one, for example.) But reaching a common mind was easier when the cultural norms were set by the British Empire and reinforced by the appointment of many English bishops around the world. Once the Lambeth Conferences got into their stride, they pronounced definitively — but in hindsight often questionably — on topics such as divorce, contraception, women’s ministry, and relations with other denominations and faiths.

In recent decades, however, the difficulty of holding to a common faith while showing greater respect for regional cultures has undermined attempts at global pronouncements beyond some of the most basic and uncontroversial. And, all along, the autonomy of individual Provinces has meant that national Churches can pick and choose which resolutions they follow — or even notice: any Anglican outside a leadership position would be pushed to name one Lambeth resolution, even the one that is still the most contentious: Resolution 1.10 in 1998, which (among other statements usually forgotten) declared homosexual practice to be “incompatible with scripture”.

In the run-up to the delayed 2022 Lambeth Conference, much emphasis was put on its “pastoral” character: it was to be a time principally of prayer and reflection for the bishops who chose to attend. Although this neatly avoided giving the impression that the Conference was going to make any decisions (particularly about sex), it did cause some to wonder how it was to benefit the Communion. Anglicans on the whole believe firmly in the equality of the bishops, clergy, and laity, and, for all their commitment to episcopacy, are sceptical about a process that expects wisdom to trickle down from above. The “calls” proposed by Archbishop Welby ­— whether they are seen as a watering down of a policy-making gathering or the firming up of a pastoral one — do, at least, acknowledge the reality of the relationship between the Conference and the Anglican Communion as a whole. As with past resolutions, they will be judged on their merits. This time, however, that judgement about their efficacy will properly be reserved until they have been seen to be received by the different Provinces.

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