The bishops and bishop-elect of the Diocese of Connecticut posted a letter to their diocese about the just concluded Lambeth Conference. (I haven’t yet done so, I want a bit more time to reflect on what happened before I do.)
In their letter they do a fine job of reporting on the experience we had in the afternoon on August 2 as the gathered bishops took up the question of the proposed Lambeth Conference Call on Human Dignity:
In remarks by the Archbishop of Canterbury before the bishops engaged the Call on Human Dignity around their Bible study tables, Archbishop Welby stated an important ecclesiological and theological truth for the Anglican Communion regarding human sexuality. It is worth quoting his remarks at length here. Archbishop Welby said:
“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 was the first time that the Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken publicly and forcefully that there are different perspectives on human sexuality across the Communion and both are acceptable in Christ’s call to unity. Archbishop Welby’s remarks set the stage for the remainder of the Lambeth Conference where unity in diversity was embraced and celebrated. We give thanks for Archbishop Welby’s leadership here and believe that with the Lambeth 2022 Call on Human Dignity, the Anglican Communion is in a more united and healthier place.
I started to tear up as the Archbishop of Canterbury gave his remarks prior to our table discussions. I was thinking about the holiness and weightiness of the vote at General Convention in 2003 when I and others voted to consent to Bishop Gene Robinson’s election in New Hampshire. It’s been nearly twenty years. This is the first time, as the letter above says, that the care and prayerfulness of that decision (and subsequent decisions) has been acknowledged in a formal way by the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And to be clear, the Archbishop is also acknowledging that many people who have opposed that decision are doing so with equal care and thoughtful engagement with Holy Scripture.
Many of the bishops present last week in Canterbury spoke about the holiness and the heavy presence of the the Spirit in the room when the Archbishop spoke. For what it’s worth, I felt that presence too – and I felt it in June of 2003. God is present in the midst of our journey and keeps showing up in moments like this that I didn’t expect. I was present when Bishop Bob Duncan was elected in Pittsburgh back in the ’90’s. The Spirit was present then too and I’ve wondered about that and what was happening for years. We don’t always understand what God is up to in the moment, or how God is guiding us into all truth. But I believe that is happening now in the Anglican Communion and has been happening for decades if not centuries.
If you haven’t had a chance to listen or read to Abp. Justin’s final keynote, do make time. He lays out, for the first time in my memory, a coherent ecclesiology for a Church that is both Catholic and Reformed, not a single entity but a Communion of independent, autonomous Churches. To me it represents a turning from the effort to build the Anglican Communion into a mirror or recognized partner to the Roman Catholic Church – something that was pursued by the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. If we’re not trying to be a Church as defined by Roman Catholic teaching, then there might well be space for us to find a chance to walk together while differing with each other substantially. And if we can do that, perhaps other traditions and communions might be added to our number in the years to come. We might even yet be managed to be reconciled with those who have resisted reconciliation with us.
As I said, there’s more reflection to be done, but this might be an important turning moment in Ecumenism and Ecclesiology going forward. At least I hope and pray so.