By Ruth Peacock
Lambeth Conference 2022 will be remembered as a watershed when those in favour and those against same-sex relationships accepted they were not going to agree, but found unity in the same Anglican Communion.
In a closing press conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby concluded: “It has been a very remarkable time and to be honest, has exceeded all the hopes I had.”
The turning point was widely considered to be his address to the conference on the afternoon of Tuesday 2 August, when bishops discussed human dignity including the issue of homosexuality.
By simply stating the facts, the address seemed to lance a boil. The conference rose in a prolonged standing ovation and the heat of the argument seemed to slip away.
At the final press conference, Archbishop Welby said he detected a sense that the bishops’ hearts and minds and attitudes to each other had been transformed at that moment: “A huge sense of acceptance of one another, even while continuing to disagree very profoundly on the issues being discussed.”
Bishop Susan Bell, from Niagara in Canada, said that moment was a high watermark: “The oneness that we found, the unity that we found in the midst of that very difficult discussion: you have no idea what that has done for my folks back home. We’ve created some hope.”
Justin Welby had simply stated that the Communion of Anglicans from 165 countries was deeply divided, but for either side to change their view would be unthinkable. In the context of their societies, for these churches to change would challenge their very existence.
The acknowledgment that churches practise and understand their faith within the context of their society was a bold dose of reality.
For Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, it was a transforming moment. “We find ourselves experiencing the same emotions, the same challenges of evangelism and mission in our own contexts,” she said.
The infamous Resolution I:10, passed by the Lambeth Conference in 1998, which says that homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture and same-sex marriage cannot be advised, was declared to be still valid and the view of the majority of churches.
This was simply acknowledged by the bishops as fact. Outside, it was seized on by the press where the address was headlined that the conference had declared gay sex a sin, a word not used by Archbishop Welby, but an interpretation of “incompatible with scripture”.
The comedian and broadcaster Sandy Toksvig wrote a blistering open letter to the archbishop saying this message was her main takeaway and imperilled lives. He replied that hatred of LGBTQ+ people was a sin. They have agreed to meet for coffee.
The whole communion will continue to meet and discuss the “calls” in their local churches. But the dialogue on homosexuality is clearly in its infancy.
One of the African bishops talked openly to me about his church’s stand. He believes homosexuality is against scriptural teaching. In a sign of the gulf of understanding, he was surprised that it is commonly accepted by Anglican churches. “It’s criminal in our country”, he said. “What is the benefit of it?” he asked. He was surprised at the idea that people were born gay. He could not understand how churches had accepted LGBTQ+ rights and wondered whether, in England, the church was simply following the state.
Bishop Zechariah Manyok Biar, of Wanglei in South Sudan, was still trying to take in what happened. “[Tuesday] was the time that we were going to have real issues,” he said. “And what [Archbishop Welby] did was to stand in the middle and put something a little to this side, another little to this side. And by the end of his speech, we got confused, I think all of us got confused, could not decide whether to be angry or to be happy. And I think people are still in that state of confusion.
“We may call it unity. But the best thing that I can say is that even though we are not yet sure of whether this is going to bring in Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda, I think we have started the dialogue. And that is how people come together, when you can talk and understand yourselves.”
Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopalian church, believed that LGBTQ+ rights were equivalent to the struggle over race. “I hope we can help with the dialogue but changing people’s minds is God’s business not mine,” he said. “The Anglican Communion is a global communion, and we all live in different cultural contexts and how you care for the people of God is going to be different.”
Bishop Curry detected a significant change among the bishops to accept differences: “For people to be able to stay in relationship with profound differences that is a kind of diversity. And we think diversity is a good thing … The paragraph that dealt with human sexuality didn’t come down on one side or the other. It basically said that we live with a plurality of perspectives.”
In 2016, the Primates resolved to suspend the Episcopalian Church in America from global communion committees for three years because it took unilateral action to support same-sex marriage when the rest of the church was still trying to agree.
Justin Welby said there would be no disciplinary procedure from him against those with another view. “I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline or exclude a church of the Anglican Communion. I will not do so,” he said.
This commitment was profound, according to Archbishop Nicholls, who said it was met with relief. “People could suddenly go, OK, we are here together, and we’re listening”.
But his vision of the Anglican Communion carrying on while harbouring deep disagreements was challenged by the Global South Fellowship Association, which said it could not accept the Anglican Communion had a plurality of views on sexuality and there needed to be limits to theological diversity.
While campaigner Jayne Ozanne said the cost of unity was being paid by LGBT+ people and there was a need to help educate people and share the theological basis that led to the affirmation of same sex relationships.
At present churches in Canada, the United States, Brazil and Scotland allow same-sex marriage. Others are considering it. There were seven out gay bishops at Lambeth, some of whom brought their spouses who were not formally invited.
But churches in the Global South — mainly Africa, South America and southeast Asia — are against, believing it to be against the teaching of the Bible. In many of those countries, homosexuality is a crime that carries a sentence of imprisonment or even death.
The provinces of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda boycotted the Lambeth Conference in opposition to bishops in other parts of the world who had sanctioned same-sex marriage. Conference organisers and the Archbishop of Canterbury had spent years preparing the communion to stay together rather than divide further over opposing views.
Archbishop Nicholls said the preparation meant people arrived already knowing others through Zoom calls and dialogue.
But there was a shaky start. Draft “calls”, motions for discussion, which included a reaffirmation of Resolution I:10, were hastily redrawn after a furious response and the Global South Fellowship Association announced that bishops would sit in their places rather than receive communion alongside gay bishops and their supporters at the opening service in Canterbury Cathedral.
In those opening days, however, the bishops did sit together in Bible studies of small groups with different theologies, they ate meals together, listened to speeches and took part in conference worship sessions. Their spouses were similarly mixed together in a parallel set of events. LGBTQ+ campaigners distributed rainbow lanyards until they ran out.
Efforts were made to avoid polarisation. The process of voting, where every bishop had an electronic voting device, was scrapped.
The Primate of Tanzania, Maimbo Mndolwa, was not surprised that the storm was stilled. He believed the angry exchanges were initiated from people outside the conference, but within the session where human dignity was discussed, there were no raised voices, simply acceptance that scriptural reasoning leads to different conclusions and that it was not up to the Global North or Global South to dictate to one another.
There was, underlying it all, a passionate defence and warmth towards maintaining the global Communion. As two African bishops said: “We have to be here, it’s a communion. You gave us Anglicanism, we owe it to you to be here.”