Summary: Building on yesterday’s analysis of walking together, this article explores the problems faced by the Lambeth Conference in 2008 and how they continue to be present as we approach Lambeth 2020. To enable as close and truthful a walking together as possible, it suggests the conference may combine the two forms of gathering we have known and build on the decisions of the primates in 2016 and 2017 about consequences for unilaterally departing from Communion teaching. This could take the form of a non-resolution gathering (as in 2008) in which all provinces and ecumenical partners walked together despite the significant distance between them, followed by a more deliberative assembly passing resolutions (as before 2008) involving those living in a higher degree of communion and committed to intensifying that communion.

By Andrew Goddard

The last Lambeth Conference in 2008 was marked by a number of distinctive features. These included the failure of a large number of provinces and so several hundred bishops to attend due to the actions of the American Church and their presence at the conference, the non-invitation of a serving bishop (Gene Robinson) because he was in a same-sex union and another because of corruption (Bishop Nolbert Kunonga), and the decision to have an Indaba and not to pass any resolutions. It is also important to recognize that in his 2007 letter of invitation the Archbishop of Canterbury made clear that there were certain expectations and commitments expected of those attending:

I have said, and repeat here, that coming to the Conference does not commit you to accepting every position held by other bishops as equally legitimate or true. But I hope it does commit us all to striving together for a more effective and coherent worldwide body, working for God’s glory and Christ’s Kingdom. The Instruments of Communion have offered for this purpose a set of resources and processes, focused on the Windsor Report and the Covenant proposals. My hope is that as we gather we can trust that your acceptance of the invitation carries a willingness to work with these tools to shape our future. I urge you all most strongly to strive during the intervening period to strengthen confidence and understanding between our provinces and not to undermine it.


It is now clear that not only were many so unhappy with such limited assurances being sought that they stayed away but many of those who attended and implicitly gave such assurances subsequently demonstrated little or no willingness to work with those tools. The situation in the Communion that led to these problems has, without doubt, worsened in the last decade and the challenge in gathering bishops from across the Communion is now even more serious. To give just four examples:

  • The 2004 Windsor Report could give American bishops the benefit of the doubt about whether they really understood the implications of their actions in relation to electing and consecrating Gene Robinson, and in 2007 it was being claimed that the response of TEC to the Windsor requests needed further clarification. It is now clear that only 8 of the 101 diocesan bishops in TEC (the Communion Partner bishops) have on principle disapproved the church’s authorizing same-sex marriage and by 2020 TEC may try to impose this on the whole province.
  • There is currently one same-sex partnered bishop in TEC (Mary Glasspool, suffragan in New York) and one in Canada (Kevin Robertson, suffragan in Toronto). Were they (or any others then in office) not to be invited (following the Gene Robinson precedent) this can only be seen as victimization of someone because of their sexuality if all other bishops are invited despite their support for same-sex marriage and bishops in same-sex unions. However, were they (and presumably their partners) to be invited, this would be seen by most of the Communion as a further departure from Communion teaching and discipline.
  • The non-attendance at Lambeth 2008 was the first large-scale separation from the Instruments, but this pattern has continued since then in relation to both Primates’ Meetings and ACC meetings. There is now a pattern that threatens to be repeated or even extended, and it needs to be halted and reversed.
  • Even though the 2008 Lambeth Conference was one that did not pass resolutions, participation was unacceptable for many provinces and bishops. Were 2020 Lambeth to return to the pattern of articulating the mind of the Communion through its bishops gathered together, then it would be even more difficult for many to attend than it was in 2008, given developments since that conference.

The challenges are clearly daunting and the consequences of another large-scale boycott are very serious: what are the chances of ever again gathering all the Communion’s bishops together as happened in 1998 if the attempts of both 2008 and 2020 significantly fail? Who knows where we will be in 2030, but even were some unity possible it would then be 32 years from the last gathering.

At the moment, the approach would seem to be to reiterate walking together on the terms set out at the 2016 Primates’ Meeting and so inviting everyone and accepting the reality that some may not come because of the invitation to others. However, these existing terms raise a number of serious and currently unanswered questions, including that while the consequences for SEC continue until after Lambeth 2020, those for TEC cease in 2019, and it is not clear whether or how they may be renewed. More significantly, what it would mean for a resolution-passing Lambeth Conference to ensure that some bishops (American, Scottish, perhaps by then Canadian?), although “participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion,” would “not take part in decision making on any issues of doctrine or polity”? There is also the real danger that — given the problems noted already and likely developments before 2020 — many bishops and whole provinces will simply feel they cannot in good conscience, because the distance between them and other bishops is simply too great, walk together in a Lambeth Conference if it claims the level of moral authority traditionally accorded to it. There is then the likelihood that they will simply not attend at all; the level of walking together demanded and its undifferentiated nature will mean they have to appear to walk apart.

Is there then any way of constructing a Lambeth Conference that, in continuity with recent developments, can speak the truth about both our walking together and our significant distance and acceptance of the need of forms of walking apart even as we desire to walk together? Could there even be a way of increasing the numbers walking together to include those absent from the recent Primates’ Meeting and the last Lambeth Conference but also enable the development of a deeper walking together for those committed to seeking such a pattern of common interdependent Anglican life in communion?

Here there may be the possibility of drawing together both the historic form of the Lambeth Conference as a body whose level of communion and moral authority is expressed in resolutions and the novelty of 2008 as subsequently developed in the Continuing Indaba Project to structure a new form of conference. This would be one which in its very design acknowledges both the painful reality of our divisions and the genuine desire to seek to walk even closer together in the highest possible degree of communion in apostolic faith, sacramental life, shared ministry, conciliar relations and decision-making, and common witness and service.

What if the first part of the conference were to involve the sort of activities that we now widely accept and participate in with fellow Christians with whom we are not in full or even formal communion? This could be, as in 2008, a sharing of fellowship, wisdom, and the experience of participating in God’s mission and service to the world set in the context of prayer, worship, and Bible study involving all provinces of the Communion and possibly even ACNA (at least as ecumenical partners). It would be a genuine form of walking together in Christ but at a lower level of mutual recognition and further from full communion than traditional Lambeth Conferences. It could be modeled and its pattern of walking together strengthened through the new development of regional meetings of primates and others with the Archbishop of Canterbury announced for 2018 and 2019 at the recent meetings.

What if, then, in the light of this, those Communion bishops truly committed to developing a deeper form of walking together met in a more deliberative assembly to consider resolutions and pre-conference reports (shaped perhaps by discussion of these in the larger group in the earlier gathering)? This body could also consider how to develop other ways of walking together more closely and so deepening their communion and how best to continue to walk as closely together with other Anglicans not part of this gathering. Clearly a crucial question here would be the commitments necessary to participate in this closer form of walking together that would need to be more than the implicit willingness sought in 2008 and recognize the existing levels of significant distance in our walking together. The 2016 decision now reaffirmed last week that provinces which had changed the doctrine of marriage “would not take part in decision making on any issues of doctrine or polity” is already in place as a basis. Other possible reference points could be the Windsor moratoria and the basic vision of communion life set out in at least the first three sections of the Anglican Communion Covenant. It would also be important to decide whether the commitments necessary for participation were required of individual bishops or whether the decision would be made on a provincial level and apply to all bishops in each province with no possible differentiation.

Such a form of Lambeth Conference would build on the form of walking together already established by the primates in 2016. It would not undermine the Instruments and level of communion that currently exist but it would offer something more in addition. It would be similar to the vision set out by Rowan Williams in his 2009 response to TEC’s General Convention when American Episcopalians clearly signaled they were not in fact committed to the vision he had set out in 2007 for those attending Lambeth 2008. His comments were related to the still-unfinished draft Covenant, but the principles are not dependent on a Covenant process. The key paragraphs (22-24) are worth quoting in full to show what is and is not involved in such a two-fold form of Lambeth Conference:

… For those whose vision is not shaped by the desire to intensify relationships in this particular way, or whose vision of the communion is different, there is no threat of being cast into outer darkness — existing relationships will not be destroyed that easily. But it means that there is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance: that is, a “covenanted” Anglican global body, fully sharing certain aspects of a vision of how the church should be and behave, able to take part as a body in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; and, related to this body, but in less formal ways with fewer formal expectations, there may be associated local churches in various kinds of mutual partnership and solidarity with one another and with “covenanted” provinces.

This has been called a “two-tier” model, or, more disparagingly, a first- and second-class structure. But perhaps we are faced with the possibility rather of a “two-track” model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage, one of which had decided that local autonomy had to be the prevailing value and so had in good faith declined a covenantal structure. If those who elect this model do not take official roles in the ecumenical interchanges and processes in which the “covenanted” body participates, this is simply because within these processes there has to be clarity about who has the authority to speak for whom.

It helps to be clear about these possible futures, however much we think them less than ideal, and to speak about them not in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication but plainly as what they are — two styles of being Anglican, whose mutual relation will certainly need working out but which would not exclude cooperation in mission and service of the kind now shared in the communion. It should not need to be said that a competitive hostility between the two would be one of the worst possible outcomes, and needs to be clearly repudiated. The ideal is that both “tracks” should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling them to be as church, with greater integrity and consistency. It is right to hope for and work for the best kinds of shared networks and institutions of common interest that could be maintained as between different visions of the Anglican heritage. And if the prospect of greater structural distance is unwelcome, we must look seriously at what might yet make it less likely.

Of course, to achieve even this will require significant changes of heart and direction. Those who failed to attend in 2008 and at the recent primates and who may consider repeating this in 2020 would need to make a step towards those from whom they have walked apart within the existing Instruments. They would though perhaps be enabled to do so by a recognition that their participation was in the context of a recognition that such walking together recognized the significant distance (as in ecumenical gatherings) and the fact there was an opportunity to then walk more closely together with those Anglicans with whom they were in a higher degree of communion. Those who have walked apart by acting unilaterally and pursuing a different path on marriage and sexuality would need to accept the development of an Anglican gathering in which they could not participate. They would though perhaps be enabled to do so by recognising this as the outworking of the existing consequences they have already accepted and by finding in the initial gathering a way of continuing involvement with fellow Anglicans that expresses the current reality of walking together but in impaired communion (and perhaps even enables some degree of reconciliation) rather than there being no lived expression of communion at all.

Such a proposal clearly would itself face major challenges and be a risky way forward for the Archbishop of Canterbury but there is no risk-free way forward. The real danger is that proceeding as if it can be business as usual in terms of invitations and structure risks another Lambeth Conference that embodies walking apart at least as much as walking together. Were this to happen there is likely to be the development of parallel structures of more intense walking together as Anglicans without reference to Canterbury by perhaps the majority of the Communion in order to express their deeper degree of communion.

In one sense, of course, such a new form of conference would be a confession of our failure. But, like any confession it would also be perhaps the most truthful way of speaking of our current situation, our desire to walk together and the limits to that walking together given our deep disagreements, recent history and competing visions of being Anglican. In line with the Archbishop’s Task Group’s focus not just on common liturgy but a season of prayer of repentance and reconciliation, such a conference could even be a way of seeking God’s grace and restoration, giving visible expression to our historic Anglican confession:

Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Goddard is senior research fellow at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics in Cambridge, assistant minister at St James the Less, Pimlico, and adjunct assistant professor of Anglican Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

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John Thorpe
5 years ago

Really enjoying these, Andrew. I appreciate the work and research that has gone into them, and the “two-track” model is explained winsomely, I think. Great work. I’m someone who, from the outset in 2003, has been a fan of more concrete, even disciplinary categories of action; and who has sometimes been frustrated by the actions and inactions of communion bodies and ABC’s. I’d love to see a real synod convened, something conceptually stronger even than Lambeth 1998. But that said, I can live with the two-track model. As described here, it would be too strong to call even the deliberative… Read more »

Charlie Clauss
5 years ago

The term “walking apart” has a note of euphemism to it. The conservatives in the Communion don’t believe that the condition is “walking” apart, but is in fact *separation*. They value the point of doctrinal correctness, and whether you agree or not, that is the foundation upon which they build. Use of the term “waking apart” actually misunderstands and threatens to belittle their position.

John Thorpe
5 years ago
Reply to  Charlie Clauss

British English is a highly coded form of the language, it’s true. Having our church leaders based in British English means they often take refuge in semantic ranges and subtle distinctions. If they were all American, there would be more straight-talking, which the GAFCON folks would probably appreciate. Walking apart, as you’ve said, Charlie, is a coded phrase which intentionally obscures the difference between, or opens up space between, unity and separation. When it was originally used in Windsor, I think it was simply a very English way to say “separation.” Now it seems to have taken on a broader… Read more »

[…] The last Lambeth Conference in 2008 was marked by a number of distinctive features. These included t… […]

5 years ago

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5 years ago

In a previous post I put forward the view that the message of salvation which the Church is commanded to proclaim has two essential components; a terrible warning based on the truth that we all face the wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards because of Adam’s sin and because of our own sins and that we are all born with a nature inclined to evil; and a wonderful sincere and genuine invitation, command and exhortation to all to trust in Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection and to submit to him in repentance, faith, love, obedience… Read more »