Lambeth Conference 2022 bishops photoshoot

Lambeth Conference 2022 looked outward, sideways and upward, but the world only saw inward

From the four corners of the world the came, to kiss the shrine of Canterbury. Some 660 bishops from 165 countries representing dioceses and Christian communities from the global Anglican Communion – the third largest Christian community in the world. The conference theme this year was ‘God’s Church for God’s World – walking, listening and witnessing together’, and so they sat and debated and meditated and prayed about what it means for the Anglican Communion to be responsive to the needs of the 21st century.

Nobody really noticed, of course, except the Church Times and a few blogs. After all, there’s a Tory leadership race on, a war still going on in Ukraine, and something called the ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial concluded with an expensive loss for someone or other – something to do with footballers’ wives, but it’s hardly worth a look. But still more media-worthy than 660 bishops gathering in Kent to debate gay sex.

It was the earnest desire, if not the fervent prayer of the Archbishop of Canterbury back in April that this Lambeth Conference wouldn’t be dominated by matters of sex and sexuality (specifically same-sex matters) again. The super-objective had previously been set out in the Primates’ Communiqué, which confirmed their primary calling to “follow Jesus’ command to the church to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'”. But they had lamented inwardly the absence from their earlier meetings of three primates who choose to stay away, principally because they take a different view on sex and sexuality, and on the nature of marriage and human identity, from some of their fellow archbishops. But this couldn’t be allowed to become the defining issue (once again) of this Lambeth Conference, which had to be more outward looking.

And so they discussed and prayed and debated “the way we treat people on the edge, food, insecurity, whether it’s rising sea levels, whether it’s war, persecution, freedom of religion and belief, torture, unfair trade practices, and a million other things”.

They lifted their hearts unto the Lord, and determined to grow into deeper understanding of one another, and deeper love for the world Jesus Christ came to save.

But they could no more escape sex and sexuality than they could avoid breathing the glorious Kent air.

Sex and sexuality is to the 21st century what war and peace was to the 20th, industrial revolution to the 19th, and enlightenment was to the 18th. It is inescapable and all-consuming, because we are in the age of individual identity of sexual obsession, fanned by a prurient media obsessed with rainbow secularity. And if you don’t get with the programme, you are a bigot full of hate, or a heretic full of bull.

It is interesting to observe that the first great schism among Christians centred around the nature of Christ’s divinity; and the second great schism among Christians centred around the nature of the Church’s authority, while the looming third great schism among Christians centres around the nature of humanity.

And the Anglican Communion would rather debate what Anglicans believe about human identity than what Anglican doctrine teaches, because that doctrine is now considered a little too restrictive for some, and rather than bending their beliefs and behaviours to conform to the doctrine, they are demanding that doctrine be modified by their praxis.

This might work if the Anglican Communion weren’t so worldwide; if it were, say, the Western Anglican Communion, which is liberal and declining. But there are almost 60 million Anglicans in Africa, where the Anglican church is not only growing but positively thriving, and where it is rather more conservative and orthodox on matters of sex and sexuality. Absent an Anglican pope to proclaim moral teachings ex cathedra, how do you arrive at a unified theological position on human identity when parts of the Communion refuse to commune with recidivist schismatics?

You can’t, of course. There are clearly provincial fractures and parallel churches already operating throughout the Communion. After all, what hath South Sudan to do with Canada? The conflicts of culture represented at the Lambeth Conference are disparate and variable, and the one may be totally disengaged from the other. We can carry on pretending while the media focuses on continuing divisions, or we can agree to differ over women’s ordination/episcopacy and homosexuality, and restructure accordingly, leaving provinces autonomous to the extent of adapting Anglican identity, and other provinces free to reject such adaption altogether in favour of a more robust approach to biblical teachings. It would be the Orthodox model of ecumenism; one which expresses depth, richness and meaning; which consists of a communion of 14 autocephalous regional churches, bound ‘in tension’ by a common ecclesial heritage which extends even to those of irregular or unresolved canonical status.

The age of the Imperial Church is over: neither the evangelisation of the world nor the re-evangelisation of the West will be achieved while Christians are captive to their preferred constitutional formulations more than they are to the Word of God. We need to decide where the Anglican Communion is going, and we need to agree that it’s got to go somewhere that it isn’t presently going. This is about humble hearts and discerning minds and witnessing to the gospel; not pussyfooting around with pompous primatial protestations about who’s in and who’s out and whether the canons should henceforth be gender neutral. If the Worldwide Anglican Communion cannot come together to fulfil the Great Commission, it is time to acknowledge that the season has turned, and that the Worldwide Anglican Communion might become the Worldwide Anglican Communities – each an autocephalous service of prayer for the contextual work of mission.

You may portray this as reformation, abolition or dissolution. It may lead to bemusement, dismay or confusion. But the misinterpretation or disinformation ought not to deflect from the reality that families sometimes grow apart. It is, rather, about freedom, benevolence, and affirmation. Justin Welby has no power or authority to reform anything: all he can do is encourage, exhort and plead. You might think he’s wasting his breath on an ailing, infirm and perhaps incurable body, but it’s got to be worth a prayer for the avoidance of suffering.

Is the inward-looking tawdry nature of sinful humanity really worth a schism in the sacred body which is supposed to radiate Christ’s divinity and affirm his spiritual authority outwardly? Is human sexual identity really worth all this obsessive navel-gazing and a multiplicity of bewildering battles when Christians around the world are facing persecution, torture and death for their witness to the Faith?