In 1978, it was women’s ordination to the priesthood, in 1988, women bishops, in 1998, it was homosexuality. But unlike previous Lambeth Conferences that have weathered the threat of a massive divide in the communion, this one did not devise a liberal-leaning compromise. Instead it took a conservative stance, with 526 bishops voting for, 70 against and 45 abstaining, to assure homosexuals that they “are full members of the Body of Christ,” but rejecting “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture.”
The vote on homosexuality is the one by which this conference will certainly be known. And it will be known not merely by the outcome – which was no real surprise – but by the hostility of the debate.
Despite this, many moderate bishops said they voted in favour of the resolution, not because they accepted it, but for the sake of unity.
It was this, perhaps, that prompted the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, to say at the close of the conference, that he believed the communion was stronger than ever. It was not a view shared by everyone.
Preaching near the end of the conference, Archbishop Khotso Makhulu, primate of Central Africa, said, “May God forgive us our wrong doings and our failure to strengthen His fellowship.”
He said, “Sometimes our deliberations have made me wonder if we have chased the Holy Spirit away. I pray to God that the spirit of Anglicanism will survive, that we shall come to engage each other and find the best way forward.”
But the conference did accomplish other things. Bishops from various parts of the world who encounter Muslims on a daily basis were able to talk about the different expressions of Islam. Some face death or torture because of their beliefs. Others live in a more harmonious relationship.
The bishops also heard from the president of the World Bank on the issue of Third World poverty and indebtedness to rich nations. And although concrete steps were few, the discussion raised the profile of forgiving poor countries’ debts and had some Canadian bishops wondering what further steps the church here should consider to help out.
But for most of the 736 bishops and 600 spouses at the conference, the most important aspect was the ability to share their experience of faith and life with other Anglicans.
If that is fostered over the next decade, if bishops get to experience Christianity and Anglicanism in each other’s parts of the world, if there is more dialogue, perhaps the communion will become stronger and more understanding of its own diversity.
If it fails, it will have lost one of the chief reasons for the existence of Anglicanism as a separate denomination. And if that happens, there will be no communion.