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Rebecca Chapman: Who decides the legacy of the 15th Lambeth Conference?

11 August 2023

Neil Turner/Lambeth Conference

The Archbishop of Canterbury addresses the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury last year

The Archbishop of Canterbury addresses the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury last year

THIS time last year, the 15th Lambeth Conference had just concluded. But, before it began, there was disquiet brewing about communications. A video from the Archbishop of Canterbury described the Calls as urging the Communion “to pray and to think and reflect”. Then, just as bishops prepared to travel, 52 pages of draft Calls were published, and suddenly included an electronic voting system.

American bishops quickly picked up the shift, and drew attention to the suggestion of affirming Lambeth 1.10. They began to blog, calling the change a bait-and-switch. Days later, voting options changed, and revised drafts were produced, dismaying conservatives while pacifying liberals.

Meeting in person was Phase 2 of the Conference, “Walking Together”. Yet, in Canterbury, Archbishop Badi of South Sudan spoke powerfully to emphasise that “we may be ‘gathered together’, but we most certainly cannot ‘walk together’.” Who decides who is walking “with” whom?

For the first time, there is a planned post-conference implementation process. As the first Lambeth Conference in an age of social media, tweets, blogs, and videos from those attending are available to all online, collated by commentators including Thinking Anglicans, Psephizo.com, and @LambethConfNews. Dissenting bishops’ voices could be heard and amplified: they could discern that they were not alone. No man is an island, and no bishop, either.

In Archbishop Welby’s closing sermon, he observed: “We clutch at what makes us feel in control . . . the story we tell ourselves about who we are, what our power is, what our importance is, and what is possible.” The report of the Conference is now available — free to download in French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and available to buy in English.

Described by its publisher as being globally significant, and the “definitive record of the conference”, Archbishop Welby’s foreword considers the Lambeth Calls to be a “major step forward in our ecclesiology”; the preface states that these Calls, drafted by various groups, “present current Anglican thinking on key conference topics”. As we pay attention to power, how does this apply to what is published — who now holds the pen on what becomes history?

In its closing pages, the report suggests that we seek the perspective of Conference delegates: “the Press wanted a story, and some have printed their own interpretations of what happened. The real story has yet to be told.” Social media have downsides, but they allow us to hear more voices from the Communion, including those who were in Canterbury a year ago — from staff and journalists to bishops and Archbishops.

Shakespeare wrote that “no legacy is so rich as honesty”; the late Queen once said that “recollections may vary.” In an age of social media, in which competing voices can be heard clearly, the legacy of Lambeth 2022 seems likely to be contested.

Rebecca Chapman is a General Synod member for Southwark diocese.

Angela Tilby is away.

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