What Happened at Lambeth 2022 and What Should Happen Next

By George Sumner

As we peer into the glass darkly to discern the outlines of a future for global Anglicanism, it is not Canterbury 2022, but rather Toronto 1963, almost sixty years ago, that should draw our initial attention. There the last Anglican Congress, comprising both laity and ordained, met, at the high-water mark of the Church’s strength in the modern era. (By the way, there is now an intention to revive the Congress). Its most memorable effect was actually a phrase, “mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ” (“MRI”), a catholic vision of a “communion of communions,” of growth into a single world-wide Church, without the canonical changes which could coerce this result. Cultural forces made such an outcome difficult to achieve. The debate over women’s ordination was actually an example of a successful negotiation of change. The Virginia Report of 1997, occasioned by that question, helped to develop the idea of “instruments of unity” guiding the merging Communion. (Of course koinonia was not created by these institutional supports, for it dates back to the mission societies, the Churches they planted, and so their ties to their sending nations’ churches.)

The fierce decades-long debate concerning gay marriage proved too much for this vision, at least in the near term. To be sure, the initial crisis led to creative responses, the Windsor Report with its idea of “walking apart” and “walking together,” and, as a result, the Covenant process, essentially a voluntary acceptance of MRI. But the latter was rejected, and the instruments themselves proved unable to order global Anglican common life. As for the Lambeth Conference itself, in 2008 Archbishop Williams embargoed resolutions in favor of Indaba in the hopes that relations in the meantime would have improved. But this did not take place, and the emergence of the ACNA in North America heightened the conflict. In this context, we can see the 2022 game of shuttlecock with Lambeth resolution 1.10 at the beginning of Lambeth 2022 as the logical conclusion of this struggle.

Criticizing is easy, but the situation the ABC confronted in 2022 was fraught, and the pressures many. I aim at a balanced account of what happened, both its deficits and its accomplishments. The “Calls” were never very clear, and yet they were premised on a fear of just the kind of conflict that did in fact ensue. The outcome turned out to be quite close to 2008’s Indaba, and for similar reasons. The explanation accompanying the Call to Human Dignity originally spoke of re-affirming Lambeth resolution 1.10. provoked political pressure from progressives, which led in turn to a revision of that portion of the explanation. The latter in turn upset more traditional bishops. Meanwhile there were a dizzying array of forms of episcopal response to the Calls: clickers, nothing, shouting, note taking, etc. But in the end the ABC repaired some of the damage with a letter reiterating the “validity” of 1.10, followed by a statement. When he spoke of those provinces that had moved away from the received teaching, he was seeking to be honest about where we have actually been as a Communion for some time. Meanwhile he wanted to 1) get opponents to meet and talk, and 2) move on in mission and social engagement. The Conference showed energy on both points, and the archbishop deserves credit for this.

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But there is also a serious problem to be found therein. The inclusion of the word “reception,” in both the revised explanation and his letter, to describe the work that progressive dioceses have done concerning same sex marriages is mistaken, since that concept always involved time and the judgment of fellow churches. Do-it-yourself is the opposite of “mutual responsibility and interdependence” in our common faith. The implication was left that the Anglican scene is more like a federation of independent churches; while they have been indeed autonomous canonically, now they would be so theologically too. The Anglican train has pulled into an adiaphora station. Nor was there a sense of how the new teaching was to be tested by, or contend with, the received teaching- “to each his (or her) own” seemed to be the order of the day.

All this would seem to indicate the end of MRI in our faith and order, or at least its serious postponement. One may conclude that a two-decades-long process of attempting discernment, together and painfully, as a Communion, has concluded. Again, in fairness, the ABC may have seen this as inevitable and sought out the best we can now salvage (though in honesty some also wonder if the prospect for change in the C of E had not intruded as a significant factor in this settlement as well).

This interpretation may seem to some like Chicken Little predicting that the sky is falling. We therefore do well to pause and state the outcome precisely. The Lambeth Conference never renounced the received teaching, which the ABC said was still “valid” (though he implied that other conclusions could be warranted too). While the ABC expressed his disinterest in future sanctions of any kind, such a decision would pertain to the primates as a whole. And in fact at the conclusion of the Conference, Archbishop Badi of the Global South expressed an interest in just such a question coming before them, as part of an effort to reinvigorate the Instruments. It might be successful, though it was tried in 2016 and came to naught. Even if the primates agreed, it is not clear what the scope of their jurisdiction would be. In other words, the Communion would be back once again to the conundrum which occasioned the Covenant. It is virtually impossible to see the Anglican Consultative Council having any interest in any of this. We can reach several conclusions: first that, while the teaching has not technically changed, the atmosphere around it has. And secondly, whether and how discipline would be exercised is yet murkier than ever, with an ABC now explicitly averse to it.

On the subject of Resolution 1.10, Lambeth 2022 resulted in confusion, and the same could be said of the concept of “synodality.” The Call to Anglican Identity advocated for it and will be considered further in the stage after the Conference itself. Likewise the ABC’s third presidential address spoke of synodality in support of a strong vision of a catholic and reformed Anglicanism undergirded by biblical authority. Nothing in the Conference, however, had a synodical shape or effect. An equally robust appeal to synodality, and the strongest call for extended ecclesiological work, are to be found in fact in the Global South’s letter of retort (more on this interesting development below). I am not saying that there could not be a new effort in the direction of synodality, only that it will, in a sense, be starting once more from scratch.

Again, the conversation and social outreach which the Conference pursued, and would have us continue to pursue, are good things. Why are they not enough? Given the decades of conflict, why does the rest matter? The simplest answer is that in church Sunday mornings we profess belief in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” We are not that in ourselves; far from it. But we ought to be grateful for God’s gifts to us. Through historical contingency, missionary courage, and local creativity, at the direction of the Holy Spirit, we have been given a global Communion, a sacramental for us as Anglicans of that larger catholicity. Like all things spiritual, it is at once resilient and fragile. We ought to be stewards of this ecclesial dimension. In this ecumenically forgetful, divisive time, it is more than worth the effort.

As an aside, it helps to see how we got here intellectually. The cast of thought which modernity imposes on our age is easy to see. Politics and emotion, without and within, shades of Kant and Schleiermacher, come immediately to our minds, so that doctrine per se all too readily slides into one or the other. The result of this elision is reductionist. To the children of this era, doctrine is not a live category, and that is why it is readily sacrificed for something that seems more real. But we ought not simply to be conformed to this spirit of the age. This is also a reason we need to be a fellowship that has evangelicals and traditional catholics in it, a “communion across difference.” (This is a reason that Coomunion Partners’ witness remains especially pertinent.)

Being honest about where we really are is good, and Lambeth 2022 has assisted in this. But while we have indeed come to the end of a chapter, God can do a new thing. His will is not limited by our failure. And so the rest of this piece will be an exercise in hope, a thought experiment in what he might yet be up to among us as Anglicans. I believe that we do need to look, yet more honestly and dispassionately, at where we are. For we tend, in looking “honestly,” to leave out the parts that are harder, from our point of view, to acknowledge. A thorough-going realism actually helps to open our minds to a new thought.

So, as to the thought-experiment, let us begin by giving the lawyers, canon and otherwise, their due. Let us stipulate, first of all, that all designated to be part of the Communion are so. Membership is not at issue. This does not mean that we agree with some of our confreres’ claims. Nor does it mean that God’s purposes are not in various ways fulfilled by other bodies bearing the name “Anglican.” But from a legal point of view, Anglicanism simply is this large, dysfunctional, messy family.

If, in such a family, some churches can change their teaching and practice unilaterally, surely others are equally free to join themselves in a fellowship voluntarily based on that inherited teaching. This is not un-Anglican, nor is it trying to reduce our tradition to rules. In fact, churches having regulae fidei, rules of faith, is a normal part of ecclesial life. An example of such is the recent Global South Covenant. This carries some of the DNA of the earlier Anglican Covenant. They understand themselves to have a vocation of providing a coherent answer, not only to the question, “What ought Biblical Christians to believe?”, but also to the question, “How ought Anglicans to understand themselves doctrinally?”

It might be objected that they have taken upon themselves this calling, and this is true, but this does not mean in itself that this is not also a vocation from God. Time, and their sagacity, will tell the tale, a kind of Gamaliel’s test. It is in regard to this norming and identity function that we may hope that congregations, individuals, and parachurch societies will be allowed to nest in their branches, perhaps as associates, in a kind of third order.

The GSC may well be understood in time as a de facto quasi-instrument; in the meantime, in spite of bureaucratic gridlock, from the ground up, as part of the emergent structure supporting the Communion. They are taking up the mantle of MRI anew in the highly Anglican form of a voluntary society. Their understanding themselves so is not a thing which, logically, Anglicans of an opposing point of view need oppose. What else might, in time, emerge, from the ground up? Note well that we have separated the question “Who is a member?” from the question “Who can validly speak for us on matters of doctrine?” That latter question does not imply claiming to be super-Christians, Donatists, or Puritans, but rather implies having a vocation of discerning or testing, according to criteria which those joined together can accept. Nor does this involve any coercion toward those who do not agree, but rather a voluntary fellowship exercising the same self-determination that progressives or innovators have taken to themselves.

As a result, the Covenanters will understand there to be a differentiation within the Church as a corpus permixtum. This is not schism but its antidote, under the present circumstances. The idea of course goes back to Archbishop Williams musing about “two tracks,” though the addition of the concept of vocation makes a positive difference in how the differentiation is understood. In this regard it is promising that the Global South communique at the end of the Conference made mention of their being open to degrees of communion, a point recently made in a blog post by Andrew Goddard. (It may be that the now popular missiological idea of the “centered set,” mentioned several times by the 2022 ecumenical guests, might help here too.)

The need for differentiation rather than division may become yet more urgent, soon, in the Church of England, should they take first steps toward same-sex blessing as a result of the Living in Love and Faith process. Such an event will send shock waves of its own through the Communion. Meanwhile we might equally ask what will be the effect of the downsizing in the wake of the pandemic upon the kind of re-imagining I am describing? What will happen to our ecclesiological understanding as a result of ecological dislocation? Do we show ourselves more creative or more entrenched? We cannot answer these questions yet; holding our variegated Communion together remains important.

What would such a development portend for several of the Instruments? I have argued elsewhere, and still believe, that a tradition as ancient and venerable as the primacy of Canterbury, encrusted as it is with a history of missionaries and martyrs, must, and will, play a continuing significant role. The ABC is our grandfather, our babu, in the faith. (Grandmother, bibi, when that day comes!) I do know that we discussed, briefly, the possibility of a Lambeth in the Global South, at the beginning of the 2022 Design Group’s work. (Insofar as the Conference has become, as one E. of E. evangelical bishop commented, something more like a continuing education conference for bishops, it is easier to imagine bishops of different theological persuasions attending.) In 2032, ojala, may it be so. Also, the idea of an Archbishop of Canterbury from the Global South has also been discussed off and on. As to the other Instruments, they will be known by their fruits: can they put flesh in the bones of synodality?

To be sure, all this could come about, and some parts of the Communion would still be constellated together, in contrast to other constellation(s). We will be apart together. But this would be better than what we have now, and it might not be so different than other long stretches of our history, for example among the parties of the 19th century. We are playing the “long game”: as circumstances change in unforeseeable ways, the possibility of growing toward one another may reappear.

Here my thought experiment ends. I have avoided some of the thorniest questions. Exactly what does “differentiated but not divided” mean? Within a province? Between provinces? Will others come to see the “peace of God” that this recognition of the difference between membership and normative voice would bring? More specifically to our context in TEC, should we commence an ecumenical conversation with the ACNA? Why not? Should it begin with some interim sharing as what the diplomats call “confidence building measures”? I hope so. Will the GSC Churches be willing to receive the bread and wine with Anglicans whom they consider doctrinally in error? Here too I hope so, since all communion is in part an act of hope, and in part an act of contrition. But I am also aware that we North Americans are hardly the ones to dictate how everything will go (making up, according to David Goodhew, around 2% of the global Anglican population). We seem to fall into that role too easily! The future, as the demographers and missiologists have already told us, lies with the Global South, and into their hands, again with hope and contrition, we should, forthwith, place these questions.


This post has been updated to more accurately reflect the figures reported by David Goodhew.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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C R SEITZ
1 month ago

There are many good points/musings in here. At other times the syntax and wording are too compressed/unclear (the paragraph about lawyers; “encrustation” as such, and the pressing need for coherent polity and its rationale in 2022). I would add that, within TEC, the fate of the Communion Partner idea will soon run into a consents process not obviously in favor of it (see the Diocese of FL). This means that when in the sentence below–whatever one might think of it’s value; I agree with it–just who is the “we”? The TEC Diocese of SC? The General Convention of TEC? “More… Read more »

The Rev. David Terwilliger
1 month ago

Thank you, Bp Sumner. I, for one, am definitely ready for honest “thought experiments” over do-it-yourself “reception.” However, at some point, perimeters must be established/re-established and exactly why the sad failure of the Anglican Covenant is going down in history as one of those tragic missed opportunities.