Explainer: The Lambeth Conference       

Anglican Primates' Meeting in Jordan Jan 2020. Image credit: Anglican Communion

The Lambeth Conference is a meeting of Anglican bishops from around the world that is held about every 10 years. The Anglican Communion comprises autonomous but interdependent member churches from 165 countries representing nearly 100 million Anglicans.


The 15th Lambeth Conference, to be held in Canterbury from 26 July to 8 August 2022, was originally scheduled for 2020 but was postponed because of the pandemic. The theme of the conference will be God’s Church for God’s World. The bishops will issue affirmations and “calls” from the conference based on their discussions around mission, the environment, safe church, interfaith relations and Anglican identity.

More than 650 bishops are expected to attend this year’s conference. Bishops’ spouses are also invited, unless they are within same-sex relationships. The primates of Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda and their bishops will not attend, because of divisions within the communion about homosexuality. Together they claim to represent nearly half of all Anglicans, raising questions about the authority of the Lambeth Conference, the future of the Anglican Communion, and the nature of Anglican identity.

At a briefing for journalists, the secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, the Rt Rev Josiah Idowu-Fearon said the invitation to the bishops would remain open until the last day of the conference. “Letters have been written, phone calls made to bishops in those three provinces, but they have not responded,” he said. “We will miss them. Unfortunately, their voices will not be heard.”

Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Rev Justin Welby added: “We have said very clearly that if they walk through the door on the first day, we will sing hallelujah and welcome them warmly.”

At least one American bishop is staying away in protest at the decision not to invite the spouses of bishops who are in same-sex relationships.

The first Lambeth Conference took place in 1867, called by Charles Longley, then the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was to be a consultative gathering with no intention of taking decisions that would bind the whole church. At the time Anglicanism was experiencing profound theological disagreements about the interpretation of scripture and the issue of human sexuality.


The Anglican Church was spread throughout the British Empire by missionary activity, primarily through the work of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The 150th anniversary of the society’s founding had been celebrated with an international gathering in 1851. This led Bishop John Henry Hopkins of Vermont to suggest a conference of Anglican bishops from around the world. This was an opportunity for mainly English bishops serving overseas to visit their mother church and country. It was not until the 1958 conference that a significant number of non-European bishops were present.

In the 1860s the Church of England, conscious of the resurgence of Catholicism, may have been keen to gain greater recognition for the global Communion it had spawned. Nevertheless, Archbishop Longley stressed that the proposed conference would not follow the model of Roman Catholic councils or synods, but would be an opportunity to “merely… pray and deliberate together”, and to alleviate the isolation experienced by many bishops.

The Church of England was in intellectual turmoil with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and the theologically controversial Essays and Reviews in 1860. There was also disquiet surrounding John Colenso, the Cornish-born Bishop of Natal in South Africa, a theological liberal who advocated baptising people in polygamous marriages.

Such disputes meant that many bishops, including the Archbishop of York, refused to attend the conference, and only about half of the 144 invited actually came.


Human sexuality has often proved an issue at Lambeth conferences. The issue of polygamy continued to be debated for a century. The 1888 meeting agreed that men in polygamous marriages should not be allowed to convert to Christianity. One hundred years later, Resolution 26 recommended that polygamists could be baptised and confirmed so long as they had the support of their local Anglican community and did not enter new marriages.

In 1920 the conference rejected the use of contraception even within marriage. However, the 1930 conference gave qualified support for contraception — leading to one bishop, Walter Carey, Bishop of Bloemfontein, walking out in protest and sending a petition to King George V.

For the past 40 years the issue of homosexuality has been the most divisive issue facing the communion. The 1998 Lambeth Conference passed Resolution 1.10 declaring that homosexual practice was incompatible with the Bible. Although Archbishop George Carey supported the resolution, he told the bishops that: “If this conference is known by what we have said about homosexuality, then we will have failed.”

“If this conference is known by what we have said about homosexuality, then we will have failed.”

– Archbishop George Carey

According to that criterion, the conference did indeed fail. Shortly afterwards, a large number of bishops repudiated the resolution and issued an apology to gay and lesbian Anglicans. The stage was set for a decade of fallings out, breakaway movements and attempts at damage limitation.

 In 2003 the diocese of New Hampshire in the United States elected an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as bishop. This led more conservative Anglicans to leave the Episcopal Church and form the Anglican Church of North America (also known as ACNA). The organisers of the 2008 Lambeth conference also had to contend with a new movement known as Gafcon (Global Anglican Futures Conference). It claimed to represent the majority of the world’s Anglicans and lamented the “moral compromise, doctrinal error and collapse of biblical witness” in parts of the communion.

Prominent members, including the primates of Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, boycotted the 2008 conference. Instead, they met a month earlier in Jerusalem and issued a declaration, Article 8 of which said: “God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family.”


Image credit: Lambeth Conference 2022

The Archbishop of Canterbury told a press briefing that this year’s conference would address the “great challenges that the next 30 or 40 years will impose upon the vast majority of Anglicans, especially those in areas of climate fragility, and of political and other fragility”. The conference would also confront “key questions around human identity and sexuality”, he said.

The deliberations of the conference will result in “Lambeth Calls” — declarations and affirmations from the bishops to member churches. The word “resolution” has been dropped to avoid giving the impression that the conference has the power to make legally binding decisions.

The calls will comprise a summary of the church’s historical teaching on a subject, a statement of the bishops’ current deliberations and a call for witness and action to fellow Christians and to the world.

The conference organisers have been accused by the primates of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda of failing to grasp the nettle of human sexuality. In a strongly worded letter, Archbishop Henry Ndukuba, Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba, and Archbishop Laurent Mbanda wrote that Lambeth 2022 “is to focus on peripheral matters about the environment and difficulties experienced by disadvantaged communities”.

Explaining why they were once again staying away, they said: “The grounds upon which faithful Gafcon provinces boycotted the 2008 Lambeth are still valid, as nothing has really changed about the issues in contention, which broke the fabric of the communion in the first instance. Rather, things are getting worse as the culprits are becoming more daring and persistent in their errors and rebellion.”

The boycott may take some of the heat out of the conference itself, but disagreement on the issue remains profound.

Archbishop Welby said: “My experience and prayer is that this process will continue the process of learning, first, to disagree well and, second, to recognise that although the questions of human sexuality are questions of enormous significance and importance, the heart of being a Christian is that we love Jesus Christ. The idea that millions of Christians in 165 countries are going to agree on every level is an illusion, but we do agree that Jesus Christ is Lord.”


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