Lambeth analysis

Published September 1, 1998

WHAT HAPPENED at Lambeth? More to the point, what was the vote on sexuality all about? Why was it even on the agenda? And what does the result say about our church?

General Synod this spring in Montreal signalled a shift to the right in Canadian church politics. Does the Lambeth vote signal a worldwide shift, and if so, does it matter?

Part of the story begins with the two most important political events at Lambeth. The first was the high degree of interest shown before and during the conference in alleviating poverty, particularly in the Third World, where loans to unscrupulous governments have all but ruined many countries. As a result, people are dying through no fault of their own and have no power to change the situation.

The other issue was the debate by the conference on sexuality, particularly homosexuality.

Admittedly, it would be hard to prove a connection beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, some points to be noted are:

  • Conservative American money was used to bring in a group of bishops from around the world to a Dallas conference last year;
  • Dallas money – not all of it Episcopalian, according to one Texas reporter – was largely behind renting the Franciscan Centre on the University of Kent campus where conservative strategists began meeting three weeks before Lambeth began;
  • Cash, in terms of £20-notes and U.S. greenbacks, was freely available to African bishops visiting the centre, according to some African bishops and others;
  • A project called Five Talents was announced by conservatives. It uses money, partly from Dallas sources, to fund entrepreneurial enterprises in the Third World.
  • American conservatives are already anxiously publishing stories denying the connection.
  • At the meeting of primates after Lambeth, an international mission and evangelism project and think-tank was proposed involving the evangelical Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and including Dallas Bishop James Stanton on the board. It would link with the Five Talents project.
  • Conservative sources in the U.S. admit they spent at least $150,000 on Lambeth.

Not a few observers wonder if the tacit message was that U.S. conservatives would channel money into African hands in exchange for the African vote on homosexuality. Certainly Bishop Stanton wasn’t too concerned about the work of the sub-section report on sexuality. He was a silent member of the group, despite the presence of his opponent Bishop John Spong. As an aside, it was observed that the sub-section met in the Franciscan Centre and that reports from what were supposed to be confidential meetings of the sub-section were in the hands of conservative media the next day.

So how did it all begin?

Most bishops in North America didn’t want homosexuality on the agenda. They knew the discussion would be divisive and at least some were concerned at criticism in conservative circles that the American church, was trying to foist its liberal agenda (i.e. pro-homosexuality) on Lambeth and especially Third-World bishops who were said to be more interested in debt-relief.

As a result, at the pre-Lambeth North American regional planning meeting it was not the North Americans but the Church in the Province of the West Indies who put homosexuality on the agenda.

Enter the Archbishop of Canterbury. Long on the record as opposed to any sexual expression outside heterosexual marriage, he said he didn’t really want homosexuality on the Lambeth agenda. When it became clear total avoidance of the issue was impossible, it was given a small billing as part of the most comprehensive of four sections of the agenda, along with the subject everyone hoped was most important, the indebtedness of poor nations to rich ones. A conservative evangelical himself, he would play right along with the American conservatives.

Just seconds before the vote on the resolution, Archbishop Carey said ” we will have failed” if this Lambeth becomes known primarily for the sexuality issue.

History will judge the truth of the archbishop’s comments but what is incontrovertible is that the vote and preceding debate did consume the conference and pro-gay supporters took a drubbing.

In the two weeks leading up to the vote, two things became obvious. The intensity and acrimony of debate in the sub-section dealing with homosexuality stunned many. (Bishop Eddie Marsh of Central Newfoundland, a conservative on the Canadian scene, came out of one session announcing that he felt like a moderate after what he heard.)

Also obvious was the invisibility of Archbishop Carey.

Several points were raised before and during the debate that could have been addressed before the issue came to the floor.

Among them was the position repeated in the British press (who had a cozy relationship with conservative sources) that the Ugandans were appalled at the notion of legitimizing homosexuality because there are 12 Ugandan martyrs killed because they refused to be sodomized by the king of Uganda late in the last century.

This, of course, has no more to do with homosexuality than the refusal of the many female virgin martyrs throughout church history to marry pagan kings has to do with heterosexuality.

The king of Uganda was using a sexual act to express his superiority over those he had conquered, but no one – and the Archbishop of Canterbury is respected enough by the Africans that he could have done it – stood up and said this wasn’t what was being discussed.

Nor was any leadership shown in defining the parameters of the debate. As a result, old saws were trotted out like the “slippery-slope” argument. The worst example was from Bishop Alexander Malik of Lahore, Pakistan, who suggested approving homosexual relations was one step short of bestiality. “What if someone came asking you to bless their relationship with their pets, with cats and dogs? Will that happen at the next Lambeth?”

As it was, the conservatives couldn’t actually agree themselves on several points, variously arguing it was “unknown,” “trivial” and “known from time immemorial.” Outside the debate, one bishop opined that gays should be shot.

Even moderates seemed unable to address the situation clearly.

Part of the problem lay in the strategy adopted by the American bishops.

The Americans had narrowly defeated a motion to approve blessing same-sex unions at General Convention (synod) in 1997. At the same time they also elected a moderate liberal as their primate on a platform of listening to all sides. Frank Griswold inherited a fractured church and has been at pains to try to make friends all round. He counselled North American bishops before the conference to listen but be quiet.

No one debunked the slippery-slope argument. No one acknowledged that for Christians caught between fundamentalist Muslims, on the one hand, and fundamentalist Christians on the other, such as some of the Baptist and Pentecostal sects running missions in Africa and Asia, it would be almost impossible to assent to a pro-gay position. In fact, in some places, it would not be merely evangelistic suicide, it would be tantamount to real suicide, with lives at stake.

No one said the approach to Scripture used by many of the anti-homosexual voices was not the classical Christian position developed in the second century and accepted in classical Anglican theology and based on Jesus’ own handling of texts.

Bishop John Baycroft did refer to a “narrow biblicism” but unfortunately such remarks are far to close to John Spong’s views to be helpful.

And then there is Bishop Spong. The ultra-liberal bishop of Newark, NJ, provided an attractive target for the British press. He regularly got himself into hot water, the worst being an interview he gave to Andrew Carey, son of the archbishop and deputy editor of the Church of England Newspaper, a small-circulation, highly evangelical publication. It would be another diversion to deal with the issue in depth, except that a headline saying Bishop Spong accused the Africans of witchcraft caused a huge scandal. Bishop Spong didn’t use the word but only one newspaper picked up on that, the rest happily ran with the story. Moderates couldn’t seem to disentangle themselves from whatever outrageous statements Bishop Spong did make.

In the end, the resolution was a shallow victory. It may have placated members of some other denominations who worried we were going to stray too far in a liberal direction but the points made were at best a shouting of tradition; at worst, they were vicious and unworthy of any Christian, let alone a bishop.

That is not to say the decision was wrong or right; simply that it was arrived at long before the conference began and the public discussion, at least, was destructive.

The irony is that almost every bishop, from whatever quarter of the earth, said the most important aspect of the conference was the chance to share in the life and faith of other members of the Anglican family.

As the preacher at the opening eucharist asked people to keep in mind, it is “awareness, awareness, awareness.” So it was a little surprising to see the same preacher, Tanzanian Bishop Simon Chiwanga, who also chairs the Anglican Consultative Council, quoted regarding seeking financial help for his church from an American parish, saying, “I was ashamed to have to come for help to the American Church. But then I saw the moral crisis the American Episcopal Church was in and it became clear we needed each other. It was not a quid pro quo.”

“Awareness” means being careful before branding one part of the church family as in “moral crisis” and then protesting – for whose sake? – that your offer to help in the matter is not in exchange for financial support.

Awareness is also comments from some of the spouses of African bishops who raised a few eyebrows when they heard their husbands lecturing others on sexual matters. Some of them told other spouses that they are mistreated and cheated on (as no doubt some North American bishops’ spouses are). And although sources were unable to confirm it by press time, at least one African primate is apparently being sued for divorce on the grounds of multiple adultery.

All of this seems rather sordid. But power politics has been part of the church since it began. Just because God is working in the church does not make it an altruistic institution.

Lambeth’s and General Synod’s shift to the right have some common elements – at least as far as the North American angle goes. Baby boomers are turning out to be conservative in many of their values. If this is a “correction” from the liberal excesses of the past quarter-century, the challenge for the church will be to keep the pendulum from swinging too hard the other way. Errors have been made, but much good has been done as well – not least the gift of women in ministry.

For anyone worrying on either side of the political fence, reading the primate of Central Africa’s sermon should help ease the anxiety.


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