By Joseph Wandera
The Lambeth Conference is a gathering of the Anglican Communion’s bishops, involving around 650 bishops from over 40 countries for consultation and fellowship. It has convened roughly once every ten years since 1867 and was recently held in August 2022 in the city of Canterbury.
I am reflecting on how Lambeth speaks to our ministry in the rural diocese of Mumias, Kenya, through the lens of embodiment. The story of incarnation compels me to imagine how Lambeth 2022 could translate into the life of ordinary believers. My approach to Lambeth is largely phenomenological: what I saw “with my own eyes,” as we say in Africa; the smell, touch, and place.
It was my first Lambeth Conference, having been ordained bishop five years ago. Ours is a largely rural diocese, with 170 congregations, reaching over 100,000 learners mostly in Anglican-founded primary and secondary schools and colleges, and an average congregational attendance of 14,000. Our worship is lively, and our fellowship is deep, as people bear each other’s joys and challenges. Pastoral care is done by many, but especially the laity, as clergy are fewer in number and must also engage in administration and other aspects of ministry; and in rural Kenya, communication is difficult. A strong youth movement, and women’s organizations including Mothers’ Union, are all doing tremendous ministry work, especially to those on the margins.
In a previous podcast with the Living Church I shared my experiences at Lambeth — largely positive stories of fellowship and mutual learning alongside delegates from diverse parts of the communion.
Clearly, much work and prayer went into planning for the conference. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and his wife Carolyn were splendid hosts throughout the gathering, and it was an experience of a lifetime to be with them at both their “old and new palaces” — in Kent and London — alongside a mammoth crowd of bishops and their spouses. The now-departed monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, wrote each one of us a letter, which I still keep, full of warmth and witness.
The topics of discussion at Lambeth were impressive: mission, sustainable development, safe church and so on.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has reminded us of the danger of a single story and how impressionable and vulnerable we all can be in the face of a story. Thus, we need what the father of the African novel, Chinua Achebe, once called “a balance of stories.”
Such balance enables a recovery of dignity and equal humanity. A balance of stories enables us to confront issues of power. Power here is the ability not just to tell the story of the other person, but also make it the definitive assessment of that person.
Earlier, Archbishop Welby had expressed the hope that Lambeth would be an occasion for “fruitful dialogue” as Anglicans negotiate “a postcolonial model” for a communion created in the era of empire.
Conceptualized as one of the instruments of unity, Lambeth 2022 also reflected deep alienation — historical disparities across the Anglican Communion in terms of where power rests and its embodiment in space, and damaged fellowship around issues of sexuality, with some declining to come to the Lord’s Table, while others appeared to be in a celebratory mood.
Staged in the forested city of Kent, Lambeth’s location, infrastructure, and guarded fellowship reveals beneath it that grand narrative of negotiated unity.
Notions of space, place, and locality are fluid and carry meaning. For instance, power and political dynamics are expressed through space. Expressions are found in architecture, the denotation and definition of city, in maps, and so on. Thus, fruitful as Lambeth was, it was also a human phenomenon in a spatial rather than solely temporal framework, and is an abiding geographical project. Is it conceivable that the exercise of hegemony might leave space untouched? How about having the next Lambeth in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, or elsewhere?
The organizers made serious attempts to have pre-Conference conversations online among the bishops, although many bishops in my contexts faced the challenge of an unreliable internet infrastructure.
The sheer magnitude of the numbers at Lambeth were overwhelming, especially so for the less outgoing members in attendance.
Set up in an alienating space, and with the diversity and large numbers, it was quite easy for one to be reduced to a spectator in the deliberations.
Thankfully, the gadgets given to be used for voting were withdrawn quite early during the meeting. These gadgets could have further diminished our common human dignity and stolen true embodiment through fellowship at Lambeth.
But Lambeth was not without gadgets in other forms. Many bishops spent considerable time taking pictures of the imposing Canterbury Cathedral among other landmark sites.
It was quite common during the breaks to see a number of bishops, especially from the West, rushing to set up in a corner and convey news of the conference back to their home dioceses, using their digital devices. At one point, I was invited by an American bishop to be interviewed for his home diocese. How was I to communicate the deliberations at Lambeth back home to my largely rural congregations, where our infrastructure is limited, and smart phones are a luxury they cannot afford?
I made one or two new friends and strengthened old friendships. The rest of the interactions were quick, numerous polite gestures and moving on. It is quite possible that many bishops departed from Lambeth without having established any real human connections.
It seems to me that real fellowship and communion is built over time and needs patience and trust-building. As soon as we left the hallowed precincts of Canterbury, it was gone. Some attempts at emails were answered with pre-recorded email messages: “I am now on holiday in France” and so on. Some emails remain unanswered! My hope is that the emails will be answered so that we continue to be in fellowship and journey together after holidays are over.
I am now back in Mumias. Lambeth is now past, and I am left with some questions. How do I unpack Lambeth for my parishioners at Indangalasia parish? My diocese is growing in numbers, and we desire partnerships around mission and discipleship. How could I tap into the Lambeth fellowship around these twin concerns? Yes, there was an excellent presentation from the Archbishop of York and some good seminars around discipleship, but that was it. On the temporal side of things, life is unbearably expensive in Kenya. Soaring youth unemployment, school drop-outs due to lack of fees, deaths due to unaffordable health care, chocking foreign debt, hunger in many parts of Kenya due to climate change. I am not certain that Lambeth enhanced solidarity around our existential troubles. Should it?
Lambeth may have attempted to discuss these issues in broad ways, but it did not deal with some of the historical injustices that have created the systems of unjust relationships and the harsh realities.
The many open avenues for the anticipated generous hand of fellowship over such burning issues seem either not to be there, or to be there only minimally. In Lambeth 1998 issues of foreign debt were discussed, and bishops called for a cancellation of debts held by the majority world. In Kenya, for example, our foreign debts, which run into trillions of shillings, would have to be paid beyond my generation if no interventions are forthcoming. Yet while at Lambeth 2022, one could sense a crippling sense of fatigue creeping in over our burning questions. Maybe bishops have more pressing domestic challenges to be able to listen actively and with compassion. And how do we tell our stories of suffering without seeming transactional?
The Christian story is woven around the event of the Incarnation, and so embodiment such as what we experienced at Lambeth was an experience of a lifetime. However, such embodiment ought to be extended to our communities in real ways if it is going to have impact.
There is need for a new orientation around Lambeth, making it more relational, and sustainable around our common issues.
Thankfully, we are all on a pilgrimage, and Lambeth remains a powerful reminder of our connectedness as followers of Jesus.