Reflections on the Lambeth Conference

by | Aug 11, 2022

Bishop Mariann with a small group of bishops from around the world at Lambeth Conference

Bishop Mariann’s small group at Lambeth included bishops from South Sudan, Kenya, Ghana, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and North India

I was honored to represent the Diocese of Washington at the Lambeth Conference of Anglicans Bishops in Canterbury, England.

News and impressions of the conference have been shared through bishops’ social media, the secular press, Episcopal News Service, and Religion News Service, Perspectives vary on what did and did not happen.

Suffice to say that there was a lot going on all at once. For the 650 bishops, 450 spouses, and many staff and volunteers, the experience depended in large measure on what we brought with us to Lambeth–our life perspectives and interpretive lenses. Fatigue was real, as was the spread of Covid among some. There were tensions. But overall, there was also good cheer and prayerful conversations, the gift of laughter and tears, and a near universal determination to persevere as Christians together in faith, hope, and love.

I’d like to highlight three aspects of the conference: Lambeth as a Christian community; as an opportunity for learning; and its leadership role in the Anglican Communion, the worldwide branch of Christianity to which our Episcopal Church belongs.

Lambeth as Christian Community

In theory, we were a Christian community from the moment we all arrived at the University of Kent and began our rhythms of worship, bible study, workshops, shared meals, and consideration of the topic for the day. In reality, it took time for a sense of community to develop. We were mostly strangers across ethnic, cultural and linguistic divides. At first, most of us gravitated toward those we already knew and we kept our professional guards up. The initial days were bumpy for reasons that I’ll describe later. But as time went on, the boundaries between us softened, allowing for greater vulnerability and curiosity in our conversations. As one British bishop said to me on our last day, “The most important phrase I’ve learned at Lambeth is in my context.” We learned to honor one another’s contexts for ministry, and give voice to our own.

Lambeth as Learning Opportunity

Another dimension of the conference was the daily offerings of biblical study, theological reflection, and practical wisdom. It was wonderful food for the mind and soul. I felt as if I were back at seminary.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave three brilliant addresses. In the first, he spoke passionately of the need for the Church to look outwards to tend to the needs of the 21st Century world; in the second, he reflected on the historical legacy and the global impact of the church; in the third, he cast our collective gaze toward the future. I can’t commend these addresses highly enough. And there were other, equally inspiring presentations on a broad array of issues and concerns.

As I couldn’t take in everything, I focused my energies on topics most relevant to our ministry: creation care, church planting, and discipleship. Thankfully, all the Lambeth sessions were recorded, and you can watch or read them on the Lambeth Conference website.

Lambeth as a Leadership Body in the Anglican Communion

This was the most stressful and initially perplexing part of our gathering, in large part because we weren’t sure (or at least I wasn’t) what was being asked of us and why. In the beginning, there were mixed signals and sudden changes in process. Painful memories from previous Lambeth Conferences resurfaced, in which resolutions were debated and voted upon with a presumption of authority over bishops and dioceses that the Lambeth Conference does not have.

Human sexuality and the place of LGBTQ+ persons in the church was at the center of this tension, which reached its crescendo on the seventh day. In the end, by God’s grace and with the courageous engagement of many bishops, most of us reached a place of widespread agreement and respect for the places we disagree. The statement we discussed reads as follows:

Prejudice on the basis of gender or sexuality threatens human dignity. Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality. Yet, we experience the safeguarding of dignity in deepening dialogue. It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that “all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation are full members of the Body of Christ” and to be welcomed, cared for, and treated with respect (I.10, 1998). Many Provinces continue to affirm that same gender marriage is not permissible. Lambeth Resolution I.10 (1998) states that the “legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised. Other Provinces have blessed and welcomed same sex union/marriage after careful theological reflection and a process of reception. As Bishops we remain committed to listening and walking together to the maximum possible degree, despite our deep disagreement on these issues.

It was the first time that the international body of Anglican bishops acknowledged that those who had come to a different understanding of human sexuality had done so after prayerful discernment and theological reflection.

This statement, embedded in a much longer one on the nature of Human Dignity, is an apt example of the Lambeth Conference’s role as a leadership body. It has no legislative or sanctioning authority, yet it calls us to a deeper understanding of our common humanity and witness to Christ’s love.

There are other forms of authority besides passing legislation. There is spiritual power when leaders agree to focus their energies and attention on mutually discerned priorities, and that, to the best of our ability, is what we did. One could argue that having ten areas of priority is too many, but there can be no doubt that each of the topics we discussed were of great importance: Mission and Evangelism; Safe Church; Anglican Identity; Reconciliation; Human Dignity; Environment and Sustainable Development; Christian Unity, Interfaith Relationships; Discipleship; Science and Faith.

You can read all the statements in their current form here. They will be revised according to the feedback we gave and we’ll be invited to work across the Communion on the particular calls God has placed on our hearts. I intend to monitor and engage the ones that most align with our diocesan mission and strategic plan: Human Dignity, Environment and Sustainable Development; Mission and Evangelism; and Discipleship.

In closing, let me say how inspiring it was to meet bishops from around the world, especially from the home countries of many in our diocese. For two weeks, I was blessed to see the world through others’ eyes, giving me a perspective I hope never to lose. The day we spent reflecting on the meaning of suffering, both in scripture and in human experience, will stay with me forever.

Thank you for taking the time to read this reflection. I welcome your thoughts.

We are people called by God on a journey of faith and sacrificial love, and it’s good to know that there are people all over the world who are praying for us and depend on our prayers for them. Our prayers and actions unite us.