STORMING LAMBETH: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed

It is evident that Archbishop Justin Welby is doing his utmost to achieve the highest attendance ever at the Lambeth Conference in 2020 – or at least not to fall short of previous conferences. That motivation, it seems to me, explains why he included all bishops, not merely diocesans, in the invitation list. It also explains why, when the invitation to three same-sex married bishops was made public, he pleaded privately with these bishops: “if I invite your spouses to the Lambeth Conference, there won’t be a Lambeth Conference.”

Despite various threats and grumblings from North America, I am sure that Lambeth 2020 will come off because the power players will see that it happens (see here). So I think my fellow commentators Kevin Kallsen and George Conger are being merely rhetorical when they ask: “Was 2008 the last Lambeth Conference?” In discussing this question, they make this comment about the Gafcon/Global South bishops: “If they wanted to play the political game, they could all go to Lambeth and wipe out the opposition” (at 18:45). A variant of this hypothesis is the view of some conservative bishops that one should go to Lambeth to stand up for the truth. At best, they will have the chance to sit down for “their truth” in the indaba groups.

Storming Lambeth? My reply to this idea is simply, it has been tried before and failed. In 1998, after a titanic struggle with the Communion bureaucracy, the Global South pushed through Resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality by a vote of 526 to 70. As I have recounted before (see chapter 4 of my book), passage of Lambeth I.10 was a doctrinal achievement but a political failure because the Lambeth bureaucrats who control the “Instruments of Unity” were handed the responsibility of carrying out the Resolution, which was the last thing they intended to do. After nearly ten years of fruitless attempts to apply Lambeth I.10, the Primates, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, won a second victory at Dar es Salaam in 2007, unanimously stating:

At the heart of our tensions is the belief that The Episcopal Church has departed from the standard of teaching on human sexuality accepted by the Communion in the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10 by consenting to the episcopal election of a candidate living in a committed same-sex relationship, and by permitting Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions. The episcopal ministry of a person living in a same-sex relationship is not acceptable to the majority of the Communion. (§17)

The Primates went on to specify a number of conditions that would indicate a sign of repentance by the Episcopal Church, failing which it should not be invited to the Lambeth Conference of 2008. When the Episcopal Church fudged all these conditions, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited all the Episcopal Bishops (except Gene Robinson) to Lambeth anyway. This repudiation of the Dar es Salaam demands led directly to the 2008 Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem and the absence of more than 200 bishops at Lambeth later that year.

So, as a thought experiment, suppose the Global South bishops stormed Lambeth 2020, overturned the set agenda, and forced through Resolutions reaffirming Lambeth I.10, excommunicating those provinces which have violated it, and recognizing those confessing churches who have upheld it. What then? Would they really expect the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Communion Office to carry out these Resolutions? I fear it would be a pyrrhic victory. Like Napoleon capturing Moscow in 1812, the victors would find themselves left out in the cold.

The leadership of Gafcon has learned from twenty years of futility that the official Instruments of Unity are unwilling to uphold biblical moral standards among its members. In the recent Letter to the Churches, the Gafcon Assembly again urged the Archbishop of Canterbury to signal his commitment to Communion standards by inviting to Lambeth those bishops who have upheld Lambeth I.10 and withholding invitation to those who have repudiated it. Archbishop Welby did not deign to reply to this request and has acted directly to the contrary. As a result, more than 300 bishops including the Communion’s two largest Provinces – Nigeria and Uganda – have announced that they will not attend the Lambeth Conference.

As I see it, the question “Was 2008 the last Lambeth Conference?” misses the target. The last authoritative council of Anglican bishops worldwide occurred in 1998. That was not so apparent at the time, but by 2008 it had become clear that classic Anglicanism, upholding biblical authority and historical formularies, was to be located somewhere south of England’s grassy downs. For all I know, Lambeth Conferences may continue for decades to come – until the money gives out – but the original idea of an authoritative Anglican body proclaiming Christ to the nations will be radiating out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.


BREAKING NEWS (26 February 2019). The United Methodist General Conference voted by a 55% to 45% margin to maintain its stance that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It adopted the “Traditional Plan,” which included a number of specific church laws that will enforce this position on sexuality at the local level. It also adopted a resolution that will allow dissenting, i.e., revisionist churches, to leave the denomination with their property.

When the revisionist “One Church Plan,” which would have removed the teaching on homosexuality was defeated, they turned to the “Zero Plan,” which involved running out the clock on the meeting so that the current practice of ignoring and working around that teaching in practice might continue. That effort was also foiled.

Follow especially discussion at “Juicy Ecumenism,” the blog for the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD). As an historical footnote, the IRD was active at Lambeth 1998 in helping support African bishops to see the issues at stake and to foil the Communion Establishment plan to revise the biblical norm.

In the light of this conservative victory among the Methodists, one might argue, “why can’t the conservatives, along with the Global South churches, do the same thing at Lambeth 2020?” There are important differences in Methodist church polity that made this turnaround unachievable in the Anglican context. However, there are lessons to be learnt from the Methodist situation which I shall seek to address in future posts.  See my preliminary discussion on “MEXIT: Methodists and Anglicans and the Limits of Disagreement.” 

Cover Art: Napoleon in Russia (Flickr Commons)