Sexuality and schism: do bishops have to agree on everything to stay in the Anglican family?  

Image credit: RMC

Great efforts have been made to avoid further confrontation at the Lambeth Conference of global Anglican bishops in Canterbury next week, after divisions over same sex relationships have failed to heal.

The issue has dominated conversations in the Anglican communion for two decades and bishops from Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda are refusing to attend. They said the Anglican Communion had failed to “address with remorse and repentance” the issues that forced the split.

They are members of an alternative conservative group, The Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GAFCON), which set up in 2008 accusing the Communion of “moral compromise, doctrinal error and the collapse of biblical witness”.

But that same issue is back on the agenda. A paper for discussion, a “call”, re-affirms that same gender marriage is not permissible and quotes the notorious Lambeth Resolution 1.10 from the 1998  conference, which states that the “legitimising or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised.

In a Religion Media Centre online briefing, Bishop Emma Ineson, closely involved in preparation for the conference, said that paragraph was simply a statement of fact and reflects the mind of the majority at the Conference. It was presented in a section on human dignity and should be seen in context.

“Calls” have replaced resolutions, moving away from divisive decisions on contested issues in favour of guidance to be interpreted locally. Bishop Emma said the calls were discussion documents and would be further shaped by the bishops. This was not the last word.

Earlier this month, the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches issued a statement seeking the re-affirmation of Lambeth 1:10. The fellowship includes the Province of Alexandria – Egypt and North Africa – and its Bishop, Samy Shehata, told the briefing that it had signed a declaration of faith which states clearly Lambeth 1:10. “We’re not really in a state of negotiation. We’re not in discussion of this. We’re part of the Anglican Communion as long as the Anglican communion is an Orthodox, traditional church”.

He was among four bishops who joined the briefing and they were asked if any Province would attempt to change the wording or refuse to agree that call.

Eugene Sutton, bishop of Maryland, USA, reflected that the Anglican Communion is not a judicial body, it is a communion, and he would rather not see resolutions on issues of incredible diversity of opinions and deeply held beliefs.

He said the Episcopalian Church in America (ECUSA), was in a minority on issues of human sexuality. ECUSA has consistently pushed boundaries, ordaining the first woman bishop and Archbishop, and the first gay bishop in 2003, after which it was suspended from the Communion. It has since allowed same sex marriage.

Six bishops are staying away because they are in same sex marriages and their spouses were not invited.

He appealed to the Communion not to eject ECUSA from the Anglican Communion: “I just make a plea for my brothers and sisters who have the majority opinion to keep us in the room. Be in the room with us and don’t kick us out. Let us explain what the dignity of every human being means in our context”.

“I just make a plea for my brothers and sisters who have the majority opinion to keep us in the room. Be in the room with us and don’t kick us out. Let us explain what the dignity of every human being means in our context”.

– Bishop Eugene Sutton

He drew parallels with Anglican slaves choosing to remain in the church. “Anglicans helped lead the way in enslaving my ancestors, stealing their lives, stealing their livelihoods.. and yet, our African Anglican forebears did not separate themselves from the church because of promulgating that sin. I think there’s a learning here, do we really have to agree on all issues and order for the world to say, ah, they are followers of Christ?”

His main concern at the Lambeth Conference was human dignity. One of the calls suggests setting up a commission looking at the church’s historic links to slavery, establishing “theologies of reparation” and ensuring that this “shapes the Church Commissioners’ response to the church’s links to colonialism and slavery”.

Bishop Emma Ineson was asked if this meant the Church Commissioners should be asked to pay reparations for slavery. She said each province would have to look at the calls in context and they would be interpreted differently.  

Under the title “God’s Church for God’s World”, the calls published this week cover a wide range of current world issues, such as climate change, migration, persecution, vaccine equality, poverty and war, with the stated aim of looking out into the world, not on internal church matters.

Eve Parker, director of global mission at USPG Mission Society, said the Lambeth Conference mattered greatly to all Anglicans, as it was an opportunity for those who hold the power to be true witnesses to global issues. Solidarity, listening, learning and honest dialogue were key and she hoped that working on global issues would be an opportunity to overcome divisions.

Bishop Emma said she hoped that the broad agenda would produce action for the good of the world.

One area of concern discussed at the briefing was the persecution of Christians and Bishop Samy Shehata said there were many challenges, but what he expected from Lambeth was to be supported day by day. His recent attendance at the ministerial conference on the freedom of religion or belief in London had been a wonderful, positive experience.

Veteran Lambeth watcher, journalist Jonathan Petre, told the briefing that people within the Conference were often irritated that journalists fixated on one or two issues of sex or schism, but in his experience, bishops and participants were also mainly interested in those issues when they talked to journalists.

He said there were people asking what was the point of the Lambeth Conference, if every decision that was morally binding was reversed by member churches straight away, as they took their own decisions for example on women’s ordination or same sex relationships.

Bishop Anthony Poggo, secretary general designate of the Communion, said each province was autonomous and the Archbishop of Canterbury had no executive authority over any province other than his own. But they were one family united in the love of Jesus Christ, and like any other family there were issues of relationships, issues, or disputes.

Bishop Eugene Sutton offered an optimistic vision that the Anglican Communion was a communion of love and it could be a mediating force in the world, showing how to hold onto truth from tradition, while being open to the new.

He believed the church in America could contribute an ability to confess the faith while being in unity with brothers and sisters who disagree.

This article was updated on 23 July to include comments from Bishop Samy Shehata

This report was based on our briefing, full recording is available on YouTube below:


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