I write this as I prepare to attend the 2022 Lambeth Conference, which runs July 26-Aug. 8. In recent months some have asked me, “Why bother with it?” They noted that the Lambeth Conference has no authority, so that its pronouncements cannot be enforced anywhere in the Anglican Communion. It is simply a gathering, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, of the bishops of the communion for consultation, prayer and fellowship rooted in a shared history. Is it worth it?
Interestingly, the first Lambeth Conference was requested by Canadian bishops in 1865. The expansion of the British Empire had been accompanied by missions of the Church of England. The Anglican churches in each colony gradually became autonomous so that they could develop in a way best suited to local conditions. However, concern for the governance of the church and a growing sense that some limit should be imposed on the colonial churches’ ability to make their own decisions, particularly around theology, led bishops in Canada to ask then-Archbishop of Canterbury Charles T. Longley for an episcopal consultation. In 1867 a gathering of some 76 bishops took place in Lambeth.
Already there was conflict. Some English bishops refused to attend. Some wanted to develop a form of oversight with jurisdiction over the whole Anglican Communion, while others desired a collegial forum for discussion, prayer and discernment. Archbishop Longley was clear: the Conference was to “discuss matters of practical interest, and pronounce what we deem expedient in resolutions which may serve as safe guides to future action.” It would not develop a magisterium to govern the Anglican provinces.
Why is the Lambeth Conference important? It’s one of the “instruments of unity” for Anglicans. We have repeatedly learned that the most important element in sustaining unity is meeting with one another. It is far too easy to demonize others at a distance. Something changes when you meet—and discuss, pray, eat and worship—together. We hear the gospel through the heart of another person. We see the challenges faced in other parts of the world. We meet siblings in Christ who struggle as we do with the effects of injustice and sin. We discover afresh that no matter how different we may seem, we have each been called by Christ to the table of grace and mutual love. We see the face of Christ in the other, even—perhaps especially—when we disagree profoundly on some matters.
Lambeth this year was given the theme “God’s Church for God’s World,” and it focused on key areas of global and gospel needs, with every bishop invited to take back “Lambeth Calls” to be implemented as appropriate in their own context. The August gathering will in fact have comprised only the second of three parts of this Lambeth Conference. The first part consisted of online conversations of bishops over eight months prior to the gathering, focused on 1 Peter, to think about how we deal with conflict through curiosity, listening and reimagining possibilities. The third part will come after the conference, in the form of conversations and other follow-up on the implementation of the Lambeth Calls over the next two years. I know you will hear more about them in the months to come.
As I pack my bags to head to Canterbury I look forward to the conference as a reminder that the gospel is being lived with joy and vibrancy in different ways across our communion. I will share the gifts the Canadian church has to offer, especially in witness to truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the effects of climate change and your stories of faith in action. I pray to catch an expanded vision of what God is doing in the world to bring to you. All the bishops will return home enriched by their encounters with God’s people from around the globe. It is worth it.