The Anglican churches in Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda have effectively separated from the Anglican Communion by refusing to participate in the Lambeth Conference, says Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Like many other Canadian bishops, however, Nicholls also says she left this summer’s meeting in Lambeth, U.K. with a prevailing sense of hope for the future of the Communion.
About 650 bishops attended this summer’s Lambeth Conference, a gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world which last met in 2008. Much media coverage of the conference focused on disagreement over same-sex marriage, particularly after primates of Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda refused to attend in protest at the invitation of bishops in same-sex unions. The same three provinces had already boycotted the 2008 gathering—attending a meeting of conservative bishops, the Global Anglican Futures Conference, in Jerusalem instead—as well as the meeting of Anglican Communion primates in March 2022.
Reached via email, Nicholls said the Lambeth boycott is a sign those provinces have left the global grouping of Anglican churches.
“Some have already indicated by their non-participation that they have separated from the Anglican Communion,” she said, confirming she meant the provinces of Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda. “Others continue to participate despite disagreement and I see that continuing into the future.”
She also noted that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told bishops at Lambeth he did not have the authority to exclude any church from the Anglican Communion.
Writing this this summer in Covenant, a U.S. web publication, U.K. priest the Rev. David Goodhew estimated that the provinces of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda together make up more than one third of Anglicans in the entire Communion.
Disagreements between provinces go beyond sexuality, Nicholls added, with some provinces not accepting the ordination of women, for example, and making no movement in that direction.
The primate said she found the conference encouraging overall. “Some have commented that there were two Lambeth conferences—the one inside the University of Kent and Canterbury Cathedral and the one displayed in the media,” Nicholls said. “I would agree that the two often bore little relationship to one another due to a desire to find a sensational headline. The kinds of tensions described externally were present and real but not to the degree or strength indicated by outside coverage.
“Key to our sustaining the Communion will be mutual attitudes of humility and willingness to listen deeply to the contexts, needs and concerns of our siblings around the Communion,” she said. “We will not agree on all aspects of our expression of the faith and never have. We can and will commit to mutual learning and loving neighbour as self that will keep us in relationship with one another to seek understanding.”
Asked via email to comment on the primate’s assessment that the absence of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda was a sign that they had left the Communion, Archbishop Laurent Mbanda, primate of the Anglican province of Rwanda, replied:
“The Anglican Church of Rwanda is fully adherent to the instrument of the Communion and will not leave the Communion. Those who have a problem are those who have departed from the authority of Scripture and going against the teachings of the Scripture. We … did not go to Lambeth because of issues clearly articulated to the Archbishop of Canterbury … Issues are authority of Scripture and … human sexuality.”
The primates of Nigeria and Uganda had not replied to the Anglican Journal as of press time.
Discussion at the conference was structured around 10 points or “calls” (see “The Lambeth calls: a sampler” in this issue), one of which, on human dignity, deals with sexuality and proved particularly contentious. Another call, on reconciliation, asks, among other things, that the Archbishop of Canterbury and/or the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion “renew and refresh” talks with provinces of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda aiming at achieving “a full life together as an Anglican family of churches.”
An opportunity for listening
Many Canadian bishops echoed Nicholls’s hopeful sentiments and spoke of a prevailing sense of unity at Lambeth.
“My experience was very positive, perhaps more than I anticipated … having heard from bishops from previous Lambeths [about] the focus on the divisions that were there,” said Archbishop Lynne McNaughton, bishop of Kootenay and metropolitan of B.C. and Yukon.
Partway through the conference, on July 31, Welby announced that there would be no voting on the calls. This decision alleviated the concerns of many bishops, McNaughton said. She recalled the experience of the Canadian House of Bishops at General Synod 2019 over a vote to amend the marriage canon to allow same-sex marriage, which did not pass and proved highly divisive.
“Voting tends to put people into hardening their positions rather than listening … Lambeth is not a decision-making body,” McNaughton said. “So it was really helpful to just concentrate on listening to each other and hearing everyone’s perspective.”
Bishops praised Welby for setting a positive tone. In his opening address, Welby said differences over sexuality would not be resolved at Lambeth. He called on bishops to look past internal differences to challenges facing the world such as inequality and climate change.
“His leadership was very courageous,” Archbishop Anne Germond, metropolitan of Ontario and bishop of Algoma and Moosonee, said of Welby. “No doubt he was feeling extreme pressure from both sides around that issue of human sexuality—and before we went into small groups to talk about the human dignity call, he spoke to us as our leader. I believe that his words to us actually changed the tone of the conference … He asked us to be careful with one another in our conversations, to speak our truth in love.”
Divisions over sexuality still burst to the surface at various points. Bishops from the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches—which describes itself as a “worldwide fellowship of orthodox Anglican provinces and dioceses within the Anglican Communion” that includes 25 provinces—declined to receive the Eucharist with bishops who supported same-sex marriage.
“When it came to receive communion, they did not budge and the people who wanted to go up for communion really had to get around them,” said Mary Irwin-Gibson, bishop of the diocese of Montreal.
Yet in the course of their conversations with each other, bishops said, they gained a new appreciation of the context for ministry in other parts of the world. McNaughton spoke to one South Sudan bishop in her Bible study group who is unpaid and works as a subsistence farmer.
“In my group, we had bishops from very conservative countries who told me in no uncertain terms that if somebody came out as gay in their country, they would be put to death,” Germond said. “So I came away with a whole new understanding of what it means to be an Anglican Christian in different parts of the Communion.”
“A number of bishops were wearing the pride colours in the lanyard that we were given,” she added. “The bishop in my group asked me if I would remove that lanyard with the pride colours before we had a photograph, because he said it would be too risky for him to be seen with bishops wearing that lanyard in his context and in his culture.”
Bishops also found they faced many of the same challenges. In an airport on the way to Canterbury, McNaughton spoke with a bishop from Jamaica. She asked about his diocese and he described a shortage of clergy, with many parishes unable to afford full-time priests and relying on part-time clergy. “I said, ‘No, no, you’re describing my diocese,’” she recalled.
Bishop David Parsons of the diocese of the Arctic said he found much common ground with bishops from regions where the church is expanding. “We went to Lambeth to seek partnerships with provinces who focus on evangelism, discipleship and adhere to the authority of the Bible,” he said.
Asked whether he was referring to the Bible’s teaching on sexuality in particular, Parsons replied he meant its teaching on everything. By far most of the countries represented at Lambeth, he said, “trust the Bible’s authority to guide our lives and govern our ministries. Interestingly enough, it is those countries where the church is growing.
“We also heard encouraging stories from Western provinces that God is working mightily among those who have not rejected biblical authority. Following biblical directives scores of new churches are being planted; people are being discipled and trained how to grow a church and reproduce it.”
Indigenous bishops shared insights on reconciliation
The presence of many Indigenous bishops encouraged conversations about reconciliation and grappling with the colonial legacy of the church. “It was good to see Indigenous bishops from around the communion make connections with each other and share their realities with us,” Irwin-Gibson said.
McNaughton appreciated the presence of Canadian Indigenous bishops in discussions about reconciliation. “I think my own perspective was enlarged about how many places around the globe are dealing with issues of reconciliation,” she added, pointing to the experience of bishops in Australia. “It’s a newer conversation there than it is here in Canada, so it’s interesting to hear their struggles around [reconciliation] and their discoveries and their repentance.”
She recalled one New Zealand bishop describing reconciliation as “a humbling of the church where the gospel has been tainted by colonization.”
Bishop Chris Harper of the diocese of Saskatoon noted Welby’s visit last spring to Indigenous communities in Canada, including James Smith Cree Nation—to whom Welby later sent a handwritten letter following a mass stabbing in September. The Archbishop of Canterbury again stressed at Lambeth how important reconciliation was for the church.
Welby “asked us all what we would like to see and what we hoped for in the steps going forward in reconciliation, especially if we’re Indigenous,” Harper said. “I for myself spoke that it would be important from his end to emphasize the need for education about our legacy together, our history together… [and] steps that yet have to be taken in the process of healing… I was honoured that he gave everybody time and at the same time, he listened to everybody.”
It was the experience of listening to each other that left many bishops with renewed hope for the Communion.
“The Archbishop of Canterbury articulated his understanding that there are in fact a plurality of views in the Anglican Church world-wide,” Bishop Stephen London of the diocese of Edmonton said. “I found that an encouraging realism. As to the future, I am hopeful that we will hold together.”
“If I have learned anything from being at the Lambeth Conference thus far, it is that if we want to hear what God is speaking, we will have to truly listen to one another,” Bishop Sam Rose said in a letter to the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. “If we want to know God, we must know each other and our experiences.”
Irwin-Gibson said she “came home quite optimistic about the future of the Anglican Communion.” McNaughton likewise said she left feeling hopeful.
“As each province changes how they discern around sexuality, then it may become a non-issue, or it may be just we live with our differences,” McNaughton said, noting that the Communion has “learned to live with the difference that some provinces don’t ordain women.”
“What I came away with is that there’s a sense of hope that we can understand, we can talk, and we will always have that opportunity to come to a table as a family,” Harper said. “We have what we think is important,” he added.
“But we still love each other, and we still respect each other. And I think that’s what will hold us together… Our faith is recognition that we are one in the body of Christ.”