“Rowing, not rowing” was the Economist’s elliptical, intriguing headline (9th Jan 2016), prior to the make-or-break 2016 “Primates’ Meeting” of the Anglican Communion concerning the looming rift over issues of sexuality. The subheading was: “The archbishop of Canterbury tries to save the Anglican Communion.”
This alluded to Justin Welby’s undergraduate experience as a cox of the first boat of Trinity College, Cambridge. He motivated and steered that meeting daringly and carefully. The Communion did not fall apart, as it could have done. The primates (archbishops and presiding bishops) decided to “walk together,” which has become a pivotal phrase.
The centre held, helped by Welby visiting all 38 leaders of the Anglican provinces with his wife Caroline, in his first 18 months in post. The primates also made the key decision to hold a Lambeth conference in 2020, the centenary of the seminal 1920 conference with its famous “Appeal to all Christian People,” concerning the process of visible church unity.
There are now 43 provinces covering 165 countries around the world. From 26th July to 8th August 2022—after a two-year postponement because of the pandemic—Welby will preside at the 15th Lambeth conference.
The theme of the conference is “God’s Church for God’s World: walking, listening and witnessing together” and it will meet in Canterbury, at the University of Kent and in the cathedral, with a day at Lambeth Palace in London. Some sessions will be live online, for those who are unable to attend due to travel or health reasons. It will begin with a two-day retreat in the cathedral, where an art exhibition of seven iconic paintings of “Women in the Bible” by Silvia Dimitrova will be presented in the crypt.
There is also a bishops’ spouses conference, partly in parallel and partly combined. (Apostrophes can be dangerous. I remember a notorious sign where the apostrophe was put in the wrong place: “seats reserved for bishop’s wives”…)
Thabo Makgoba, the archbishop of Cape Town, chaired the earlier long-term planning group and Emma Ineson, bishop to the archbishops of Canterbury and York, now chairs the focused working team. Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, a Nigerian scholar of Christian-Muslim relations, is the secretary general of the Anglican Communion, whose office in London is where the conference secretariat is based.
This will be the best prepared of the Lambeth conferences, usually a once-in-a-decade gathering of bishops of the Anglican Communion. The first was held in 1867 and the most recent was in 2008. The 14-year gap occurred because Welby wanted to postpone the conference until there was a consensus to hold one, which was found in 2016. Then the pandemic produced a further delay.
The preparations have included the publication of five official books and 18 months of online global conversations.
First, 1 Peter: a Global Commentary (SCM), with nine accompanying video interviews, on the foundational biblical text of the conference. Thirty-five scholars from around the Communion worked on this book, edited by Jenn Strawbridge. Second, God’s Church for God’s World (Church Publishing), a practical approach to partnership in mission on the headline theme of the conference, edited by Robert Heaney, John Kafwanka and Hilda Kabia.
The other three books, edited by Muthuraj Swamy and Stephen Spencer form a series, and emerged from three international conferences. They provide global Anglican perspectives on the priorities of Welby’s archiepiscopate—reconciliation, evangelism and prayer—and their titles reflect the subtheme of the conference: Walking Together, Witnessing Together, and Listening Together (ACO and Forward Movement).
During 2021 and 2022, 20 different groups of bishops have been meeting online for optional conversations, representing different provinces, contexts, cultures and experiences. The themes have included proclaiming the good news, discipleship, being salt and light, the environment, leadership and ministry in a conflicted world.
What are the prospects? God knows—which is both an exasperated exclamation and a profound theological principle. The primates’ meeting in March 2022 at Lambeth Palace was encouraging. Only three provinces (Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda—the most conservative on issues of sexuality and the most critical of the concept of “walking together”) were not represented.
Those three provinces belong to “Gafcon,” a group for Anglican traditionalist realignment, which does not want to be centred on Canterbury. Their leader, Foley Beach—ironically, given their critique of colonialism—is from the USA. He is archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America, not recognised by the Communion nor part of the Episcopal Church, whose presiding bishop, Michael Curry, is the man who preached at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle.
A wider group, also conservative on sexuality but much more concerned to “walk together,” is the “Global South Anglican” movement, led by Justin Badi Arama, archbishop of Juba, South Sudan. They have resisted the “Gafcon” idea of setting up a rival, more conservative shadow conference.
Welby—as cox of the Communion—has managed to steer the focus away from sex. This year, the conference timetable includes: mission and evangelism, climate justice, persecution, safeguarding, communion, reconciliation, sustainable development, Christian unity, interfaith relations, discipleship, responses to Covid-19 and relationships with science and technology.
In 668 AD, the archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus was from the Middle East, of Syrian ancestry. His theological assistant, Abbot Hadrian, was from North Africa. With the increasing significance of the Global South in the Anglican Communion, it may be worth remembering that it has deep roots in the history of the Church in England.