Lambeth Conference Postponement Spells More Uncertainty For Anglicans

Jeff Walton Anglican Program Director, Institute on Religion and Democracy
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Turmoil that has rocked the worldwide Anglican Communion for the past decade isn’t about to settle down, if recent comments by Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori are to be believed. The head of the U.S.-based church told her denomination’s recent House of Bishops meeting that money was not being budgeted for an upcoming international bishops’ gathering in 2018 because it was unlikely to occur.

Although Jefferts Schori’s comments were made public on September 23, the news did not become widely known until Florida Episcopal priest and journalist George Conger broke the news on September 30, after a week of attempting to confirm with Anglican Communion officials.

An outright cancellation would be unprecedented. The worldwide family of churches has been riven in recent years by a dispute over the role and authority of scripture, often surfacing in disagreements around homosexuality.

Jefferts Schori said that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby “is not going to call a Lambeth [conference] until he is reasonably certain that the vast majority of bishops would attend.”

The likelihood of a “vast majority” of bishops attending in the near future is slim.

Hundreds of bishops effectively boycotted the last conference in 2008, upset that U.S. and Canadian bishops who consecrated partnered gay bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire were still invited to the gathering by then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Both Williams and Robinson have since retired, but churches within Anglicanism continue to pull in opposing directions.

Traditionalists have gravitated to another gathering, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) that met in Jerusalem in 2008 and again in Nairobi in 2013. GAFCON is chaired by Archbishop of Kenya Eliud Wabukala, a conservative who rejects the liberal direction of many churches in the global north. The churches of Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda constitute a majority of worldwide Anglicans, and they have been joined by several likeminded churches in South America, Australia, and Asia, as well as other parts of Africa. GAFCON support was crucial for the formation of the Anglican Church in North America, a traditionalist group that wishes to continue on as part of the wider Anglican Communion, but not as part of the liberal Episcopal Church.

A spokesman for Welby has declined to comment on the reported cancellation, but financial pressures within the Church of England also do not point to an upcoming gathering. The 2008 conference overstretched the church’s resources and a discussion format based on an African concept of “Indaba” prevented any formal statements or resolutions and was widely derided.

Any upcoming Lambeth Conference “needs to be preceded by a primates meeting at which a vast majority of primates are present,” stated Jefferts Schori.  The Episcopal Church official noted that Welby “continues his visits around the [Anglican] communion to those primates it’s unlikely that he will call such a meeting at all until at least a year from now or probably 18 months from now. Therefore I think we are looking at 2019, more likely 2020, before a Lambeth Conference.”

Anglicans, who trace their roots to the missionary activities of the Church of England, constitute the third largest grouping of Christians in the world, behind the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The Anglican Communion is not hierarchical in the same sense as the Roman Catholic Church: 38 national churches or “provinces” function as effectively autonomous churches that are in relationship with one another. The Archbishop of Canterbury fills a role similar to the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: the “first among equals” who sets meeting agendas and issues invitations, but does not exercise anything approaching papal authority.

Anglicans have historically looked to the Archbishop of Canterbury as the central hub of relationship between churches. This perception of England as a central focal point has been shifting for years, as the critical mass of Anglicans in the Global South has grown and as traditionalist Anglicans have sought to organize gatherings independent of Canterbury’s initiative.

The first worldwide gathering of Anglican Bishops was called together in the late 1860s, meeting at Lambeth palace. The Lambeth conference (which has long since outgrown Lambeth palace) has gathered more or less decennially. This is the first postponement not caused by a world war.