Third instalment of Hearing the Lambeth Calls, a 10-part series on the calls to the global Anglican Communion made at the 2022 Lambeth Conference. This month’s call: Anglican Identity.
Changes may be in store for some of the Anglican Communion’s most fundamental statements and structures—but Anglicans will likely have to wait for the details.
A declaration by bishops at last summer’s Lambeth Conference—one of 10 “calls” issued at the conference—proposes that the church “revitalize” the Marks of Mission, review the Instruments of Communion and even possibly add a fifth instrument (see sidebar). The call also asks the church to convene an Anglican Congress—a meeting not just of bishops but of clergy and laity from across the Communion—somewhere in the global South.
The call itself does not explain why the bishops felt these measures necessary, and Archbishop Phillip Richardson, primate of New Zealand and the call’s lead author, as well as the Rev. Robert Heaney, professor of Theology and Mission at Virginia Theological Seminary, who also worked on the call, declined the Journal’s request for an interview. In an email, Heaney said they were still working through feedback they received on the call during and since the Lambeth Conference and were in the process of drafting an updated version based on that feedback.
Part of the work of drafting groups post-Lambeth, he wrote, was to amend calls based on feedback from bishops, and, he added, “Some calls received more feedback than others and that has taken more time to get through.”
In an email interview, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, told the Journal that the nature of Anglican identity has been explored and questioned ever since the Church of England began to spread to other parts of the world. Disagreements have spurred Anglicans to re-examine how the elements that unify them should be prioritized, she said, and a goal of the proposed congress would be a broader review of them.
Andrew Asbil, bishop of the diocese of Toronto, gave a presentation on the call to the Council of General Synod in November. In an interview with the Journal, Asbil said there wasn’t much discussion of the rationale for the call at his table group at Lambeth. But he believes that the idea of the conference has its roots in a shift of the focus of the Communion in the past several decades, from the North and West to the rapidly-growing South.
“There was a sense that because the Anglican Communion has shifted and changed so much since the last conference in 1963, that gathering somewhere in the global South would give us a real sense of how the Anglican Communion has been transformed over time,” he said.
There have been two Anglican Congress meetings, the first in London, England in 1908 and the second in Toronto in 1963, so a meeting in the global South would mark the first time a congress has been convened outside of Europe or North America. Because an Anglican Congress would include both lay delegates and clergy, added Nicholls, it may also help alleviate concerns that only one of the existing Instruments of Communion offers the laity a chance to weigh in.
The call is partly concerned with differences within global Anglicanism. “Governed by Scripture, Anglicans belong to a tradition that seeks faithfulness to God in richly diverse cultures, distinct human experiences, and deep disagreements,” it reads.
Likewise, in an address at Lambeth on the day bishops discussed the call, Archbishop Maimbo Mndolwa, primate of Tanzania, referred to the divisions between high church and low church—and between the Anglican Communion of the global North and the global South—as a gift from God. “Those differences, which are created by God, are here to save us. Not to break our relationships,” he said.
What the call doesn’t provide, says Wycliffe College professor Ephraim Radner, who wrote an essay about the conference last fall for U.S.-based publication First Things, is an explanation of how the world’s Anglicans should manage sticking together as a communion without directly engaging some hard questions—for example, that of same-sex marriage, over which primates and bishops from provinces in Africa representing millions of Anglicans declined to come to last summer’s Lambeth Conference.
“Maybe that was prudent. One view says that the conflicts within the Communion are so great and irresolvable that pushing the questions in a way that’s meant to produce some clear resolutions would have been counterproductive,” Radner told the Journal. “That’s fair enough—except for the fact that there was … no attempt to lay out how and why these sorts of hard things, which remain divisive, can continue to exist at the heart of a communion without some means of engaging them.”
Radner also criticized the call for its lack of comment on exactly what Anglicans should be rallying around other than their shared liturgical and structural roots. A concrete statement of what it actually means to be Anglican would discuss what sets the church apart from other Christian communions in the world, he said. And he believes a lack of any firm idea of who Anglicans are and what they do results in unclear and fragmented responses to the challenges facing the church today.
He pointed to Anglicans’ response to the war in Ukraine, which he said has come with “little moral fervour,” despite the Russian Orthodox Church’s open support of the invasion. One way to measure the strength of identity in a properly unified Communion is to look at how strongly it responds to another church taking up such a patently unjust position, he said. If Anglicans had a strong sense of who they were and what they stood for, he would expect them to speak more forcefully to matters facing the Communion and the world.
“If there is an identity that came out of [Lambeth,] it’s that we are a church that is plural. But I’m not sure where that gets you,” he said. “You’ve got to have something that actually calls people to something. That involves risks of having to make decisions and having to disagree on them.”
Aside from the general consensus on convening a new Congress, Asbil said, the discussion at Lambeth did not provide much clarity on exactly what the nature of shared Anglican identity is. Gatherings like the Lambeth Conference are not designed to make binding decisions about policy across the international Anglican Church, he said, which does leave room for uncertainty.
“Keeping it vague makes some really nervous about what might happen. How will we make decisions?” he said. But a less prescriptive attitude to Anglican identity, he added, also leaves room for wisdom to filter in from diverse perspectives. “The vagueness kind of raises the anxiety and also the curiosity at the same time.”
While he walked away from Lambeth with the impression that some Anglicans would prefer to see a style of decision-making aimed at producing a uniform idea of Anglican orthodoxy, Asbil said, his own perspective is that there is much to be gained from finding a way to let disparate ways of thinking coexist.