This is a big week.
On Tuesday, the “Lambeth Conference” begins. The Episcopal Church—the national church to which we belong—is part of a global church called the “Anglican Communion.” We’re called the Anglican Communion because we are made up of the churches throughout the world that were founded by the Church of England. There are 41 “provinces” in the Anglican Communion, and five “Extra Provincial” churches spread throughout the globe. Most of these provinces are national churches like us—we are one of the 41 provinces—though some are comprised of larger regions (like “West Africa”). In rare cases, as in North and South India, there are more than one province in a single nation. Each of these provinces has a “primate”—or a “chief bishop”—who is considered “first among equals” alongside the other bishops in their province. Our “primate” is called a “Presiding Bishop,” and our current Presiding Bishop is Michael Curry.
All in all, the Anglican Communion is the third largest global church—following the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches—in the world.
The Lambeth Conference, which is convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury—the primate of the Church of England—is a gathering of bishops from across the Anglican Communion. The bishops gather for prayer and reflection, and this reflection generally includes fellowship and dialogue centered around church and world affairs. These conferences normally take place only once every ten years, which means that in the entire history of the Anglican Communion, there have only been fourteen Lambeth Conferences in total.
This Tuesday, the fifteenth Lambeth Conference begins.
That’s big on its own. But there’s another reason this is a big week. This fifteenth Lambeth Conference was originally scheduled for 2018. It was initially postponed until 2020. Because of the pandemic, it was postponed again until this summer. When the bishops from around the globe gather this Tuesday, it will be longest they will have gone without gathering in over a hundred and fifty years.
There is another reason, besides the pandemic, why the conference was delayed in 2018. Simply put, our common life is fracturing. The bonds that hold us together are beginning to fray. And there are real questions as to whether and how our communion will survive.
And we, in the United States, are at the center of that fracture.
The cracks began to show here in 2003, when we, the Episcopal Church, determined we were led by God to consecrate a bishop living in a same gender union. In the years that followed, some individual parishes and dioceses within the Episcopal Church decided to seek “alternate oversight,” and realign themselves as members of other provinces throughout the global church. The Lambeth Conference in 2008 deemed this realignment as against the rules of our church governance—an American Anglican church, for example, cannot simply claim to be a member of the Province of Rwanda, and under the authority of its bishop. At the same time, it also criticized the Episcopal Church for going ahead with the decision to consecrate a bishop living in a same gender union independently, without discussing it further with the other members of the communion. The 2008 Lambeth Conference said explicitly that the greater error was made by those who left and sought alternative oversight. But it still deemed that the Episcopal Church had acted in error, too.
Lambeth’s key principle in both of these two critiques was the same: Unity. Lambeth, in effect, was saying: We’re a family. We don’t do things this way. We don’t do our own thing without consideration for how it affects our other family members. We make decisions together, in consultation with one another, as one body. At the same time, we also don’t leave our families simply because some of our members do things we don’t agree with. Our love for each other is a sign of God’s love for this world. And so, Lambeth said, there is an absolute mandate to keep that love intact.
Nevertheless, things have gotten more (not less) fractious since. Those Episcopal churches and dioceses which initially sought alternate oversight in the early 2000’s went on to create a new North American church (called the “Anglican Church in North America,” or the ACNA), as well as a global network of their own, which has begun to meet for an alternate conference to Lambeth—called “GAFCON.” At these conferences, its membership has questioned the traditional sources of authority and unity of the Anglican Communion, and has suggested a radical reordering of the global communion oriented toward provinces in the global south––which tend to disapprove of same sex unions.
Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church has held fast to its conviction that same sex unions are blessed by God, and also continued to ordain persons living in those unions. Because of this, the Archbishop of Canterbury called a meeting of the primates (i.e., just the chief bishops, and not all the bishops) in 2016 to address the growing fracture. At this meeting, the primates all agreed not to grant the “ACNA” recognized status as a member of the Anglican Communion. At the same time, the Episcopal Church was suspended from its membership in the Anglican Communion for a period of three years.
This week, when the bishops gather together at Lambeth, it will be the first time the whole church gathers since those decisions in 2016.
Like I said, this is a big week. And, we do not know what this week will hold. So, just one word for us now as we head into this week: pray. Pray for the conference. Pray for the bishops of the church. Pray for the people and the provinces they represent. Pray that God’s Spirit may lead God’s church into its new future.
And pray that the God who loves us may hold us altogether in that love…