What just happened in the Anglican Communion?
Division within a once-in-a-decade assembly of bishops of the Anglican Communion has erupted over the issues of homosexual ordination and same-sex marriage.
Anglicans have officially been deeply divided over issues of homosexuality since 1998. The latest conflict occurred when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, decided that the bishops at the Lambeth Conference in 2022 should adopt a process called “Lambeth Calls.” The archbishop made this change to move from “resolution” to “call” since resolution implies a binding legal decision, which goes beyond the powers of the Conference. A “call” is a decision of the Conference which “comes as an appeal to each church of the Communion to consider carefully, and hopefully to follow it and respond to it in its own situation.”
When it was published on July 19, the document included a call for the bishops to reaffirm Resolution I:10 from 1998, which bans same-sex marriage. The resolution said that “it is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same gender marriage is not permissible,” that “legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised, and that “it is the mind of the Communion to uphold ‘faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union.’”
Bishops who support same-sex marriage were outraged and pressured Archbishop Welby to add a revision to Lambeth Calls. The document kept the reference to the resolution but made two additions: (1) “Many Provinces continue to affirm that same gender marriage is not permissible” and (2) “Other Provinces have blessed and welcomed same sex union/marriage after careful theological reflection and a process of reception. As Bishops we remain committed to listening and walking together to the maximum possible degree, despite our deep disagreement on these issues.”
Leaders of a group of conservative Anglican bishops from the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches—which represents around 75 percent of Anglicans worldwide—say they will refuse to take communion while worshiping alongside partnered LGBT+ bishops at the Lambeth Conference.
“My hope is that all Provinces will come back from where they have gone astray, that they follow the biblical teaching,” says Justin Badi, the Archbishop of South Sudan. “That’s when we shall come out of it. If not, the Communion will continue to be sick and suffer, and many will follow out of [it].”
What is Anglicanism?
Anglicanism is a tradition within Christianity comprising the Church of England and churches that are historically tied to it or have similar beliefs, worship practices, and church structures. With a membership estimated at around 85 million members worldwide, the Anglican faith (including both those within the Anglican Communion and Anglicans outside of it) is the third-largest Christian communion in the world, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
What is the Anglican Communion?
The Anglican Communion is an international association of churches consisting of the Church of England and of national and regional Anglican churches in full communion with that mother church. The status of full communion means that there is mutual agreement on essential doctrines and that full participation in the sacramental life of each church is available to all communicant Anglicans. There are also groups, such as those aligned with the Continuing Anglican movement or the Anglican realignment, whose relationship to the worldwide Anglican Communion is still being negotiated.
Currently, the member churches that ordain LGBT+ clergy or marry same-sex couples include the Episcopal Church (which includes 100 dioceses in the U.S. and 12 additional dioceses or jurisdictions in 15 nations in Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe), the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church in Wales, and the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.
What is the Lambeth Conference?
The Lambeth Conference is an international meeting where Anglican bishops discuss church and world affairs and the global mission of the Anglican Communion over the coming decade. The conference has met about every 10 years since 1867. The last conference was 16 years ago, in 2008. The one originally scheduled for 2018 was canceled because of divisions among the bishops over homosexuality and same-sex marriage. It was rescheduled for 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference was delayed until 2022.
The theme for the 15th Lambeth Conference is “God’s Church for God’s World—walking, listening and witnessing together.” According to the organizers, the conference “will explore what it means for the Anglican Communion to be responsive to the needs of a 21st Century world.”
A joint program for the wives and husbands of the bishops is also being held. Partners of same-sex bishops were not invited after a threatened boycott by bishops who oppose acceptance of homosexuality. The same-sex partners who come are allowed to attend as “observers” and can attend meals but are excluded from the Bible study.
What is the possible significance for the Anglican communion?
Within Anglicanism, communion refers to both the Lord’s Supper and the Anglican Communion, or association, of churches. The symbolic import of refusing to share communion is that the conservative bishops don’t believe the LGBT+ supporters are repentant believers and thus are not in Communion with their fellow Anglicans. Anglicanism’s Thirty-nine Articles of Religion states, “That person which by open denunciation of the Church is rightly cut off from the unity of the Church, and excommunicated, ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful, as an Heathen and Publican, until he be openly reconciled by penance, and received into the Church by a Judge that hath authority thereunto.”
As Archbishop Badi explains,
Sacrament according to our liturgy, is an outward sign of something deeper. So how can I do that, when I know my brothers have gone wrong . . . ? I have criticized them and they have not yet repented. . . . Coming to spiritual things, there is no union there. [The Lord’s Supper] is not just food.
Anglican churches have been dividing over the issue for the past two decades, with no resolution in sight. The apostate supporters of same-sex unions will not cede to the biblical standard and the traditionalists will not abandon the authority of Scripture. That means the process of dissolution will likely be long and drawn out, possibly over several more decades.
What may be accelerating, though, is the inevitable decline of the Lambeth Conference. The delay in 2020 because of a lack of unity appears prescient. The latest conference has shown that disunity among Anglican bishops may have reached a tipping point, and it raises the question of whether future conferences will be helpful or necessary.