Bishop Philip and Bishop Hugh write having returned from the Lambeth Conference. It was a significant event in the life of the global church that we all belong to, and they want to share some of their experiences and reflections with you all.
Dear sisters and brothers
We write having just returned from the Lambeth Conference. It was a significant event in the life of the global church that we all belong to, and we want to share some of our experiences and reflections with you all.
The Lambeth Conference took place over two hot weeks in July and August, after a two year delay caused by Covid. 650 bishops from around the Anglican Communion, along with 500 spouses and ecumenical guests from other denominations gathered at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Kent University, with days also spent in Canterbury Cathedral and Lambeth Palace. The official photo stream, which gives a sense of what it was like being there, is available here.
The whole Conference was shaped around engagement with 1 Peter, under the overall theme of ‘God’s Church for God’s world’. We studied the epistle through daily expositions and Bible study groups exploring just what it has to say to the Communion today. The Conference was also suffused with prayer and worship, including memorable services in Canterbury Cathedral at the beginning and end of the Conference, and daily Eucharists and morning and evening prayer led by Provinces from around the Communion.
The Bishops present had come from 165 countries, with translation into 10 languages (a fraction of those actually spoken), representing places of both great wealth and terrible poverty, with diverse theological convictions and profoundly different political, cultural and missional contexts. Some Provinces came in great numbers, others in very small groups. Three Provinces, Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda, chose not to attend.
Our overwhelming experience was of a holy diversity. This was best captured whenever we prayed the Lord’s Prayer, each in our own language: joining 1000 disciples of Jesus Christ in sharing the same words in so many different voices, was to stand on the threshold of heaven. The experience was deepened in our bible study groups, which met most days to explore 1 Peter. +Hugh’s group included Bishops from South Sudan, Kenya, Northern India, the US and Canada; while +Philip was in a francophone group with bishops from Mauritius, Congo and Burundi (and Cornwall!). We learnt about life in our different settings, we shared disagreement and agreement, we explored Scripture and prayed for one another. In contrast to the media stories of conflict and breakdown, we made friends and discovered a deep and shared identity both as disciples and Anglican Bishops.
At the heart of our work were ten ‘Calls’, covering a wide range of topics of concern to churches across the Communion. You can read the full text of all of them here. The Call on Human Dignity, which included the contested issues surrounding human sexuality was important, but far from the focus of our time together, with much greater emphasis given to discussion to topics including mission and evangelism; the climate crisis, science, faith and technology; the suffering church (a major theme in 1 Peter) and discipleship.
On the issue of sexuality, it is a simple fact that there are profound differences between Provinces, and that these are not about to go away. Introducing the Call, the Archbishop of Canterbury said this:
“For the large majority of the Anglican Communion the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted and without question, not only by Bishops but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live. For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.
For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.
So let us not treat each other lightly or carelessly. We are deeply divided. That will not end soon. We are called by Christ himself both to truth and unity.”
This introduction, and the conversations that followed, did not resolve the issues, but named the situation honestly and openly, and allowed us to find a rich and deep communion beyond our divisions. As the whole Conference rose to applaud the Archbishop, there was a strong sense of the Holy Spirit having transformed something that seemed irresolvable into a hopeful future.
The other Calls were rich and important, and received widespread support, in particular those on mission and evangelism, discipleship and climate change.
Running like a golden thread through much that we discussed were the Five Marks of Mission. First developed in 1984 and often summarised as “Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure”, the Five Marks of Mission continue to speak of – and calls us to – a holistic mission to a world in desperate need of God’s mercy and love.
Reflections on the conference
+Hugh writes: I arrived at the Conference with limited experience of the global Anglican church and leave with my heart full of the encounters I have had and the people I have come to know. The South Sudanese Bishop in my group will return to the refugee camp in Uganda where he lives. His congregations are scattered in similar camps in Kenya and Congo. A Sri Lankan Bishop I met will return home to speak out against a corrupt government, putting his own safety in danger as he does so. A Bishop from Myanmar is going back to navigate a complex role as he tries to keep his congregations safe while not pandering to an authoritarian regime. A Bishop from the Solomon Islands has already moved off his home island, because sea level rises are threatening its villages.
And in all of these situations, and many others like it, faith in the God of hope remains strong and deep, and the church is growing. The Anglican Church plays a critical, kingdom building role in the world, and it was a privilege to hear about it and to be reminded that we too are part of it.
+Philip writes: As we’ve already said the Conference was a living demonstration of the sheer variety of this wonderful Communion of which we are a part. There was a studied and evident commitment to reflect our linguistic variety in the sheer number of languages we heard. It was wonderful to lie in bed in the morning and hear people chatting outside our window in so many different tongues: another foretaste of heaven!
This sheer variety in itself posed the question, ‘What does it mean to be the Anglican Communion?’ I can’t actually remember who said this but I was struck by these words: ‘In our Anglican ecclesiology we are locally placed and covenantally connected.’ And that is surely right. We are both independent and interdependent – and both are important. Drawing on two key words from Catholic social teaching, ++Justin reminded us that we need to pay attention to both subsidiarity and solidarity.
For myself I had a real sense of growing solidarity, with relational capital being built through deep engagement with one another especially in the Bible studies. And generally there was a real sense of a global family drawing together: a family of immense possibility, I pray that, by God’s grace and power, in the years to come that possibility may increasingly be realised.
The Anglican Communion shouldn’t really exist; we’re so different in so many ways, the colonial past leaves a difficult legacy for many, and the challenges we each face are serious, and yet we left with a deep sense of love for God and one another, and of commitment to a shared Anglican identity. In a world that easily divides into tribes and parties, and which finds difference so difficult, the Anglican Communion’s continued existence is a miracle of God’s grace, by which his holiness, mercy and love is made available to a broken world. There is much more that could be said, and much more that we still need to reflect on. We leave though with these words of 1 Peter and pray that they speak to you, in your own setting today:
“Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
With our best wishes, and our love, in Christ