Monday, August 15, 2022

Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 3 (sometimes it was about sex & sexuality)

The motto for the 15th Lambeth conference was “God’s Church for God’s World.” As I mentioned in the last post, the bishops gathered talked about many things concerning both the church and the world at this moment in history. One of those topics was Human Dignity, something that seems to be undermined or denied on many fronts, directly and indirectly, deliberately and “accidentally” as the side-effect of developing technologies. It was the document on this topic, made public just a week before we arrived at Canterbury for the Conference, that generated considerable controversy. In that initial document was inserted an affirmation of a resolution passed at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 asserting that the bishops gathered at that Conference “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”  It remains unclear how that got included in the document or by whom. In any event, there was immediate pushback from several of the provinces in the Anglican Communion – Scotland, Wales, the Episcopal Church, Brazil. The document was reworked to state,

Prejudice on the basis of gender or sexuality threatens human dignity. Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality. Yet, we experience the safeguarding of dignity in deepening dialogue. It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that “all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation are full members of the Body of Christ” and to be welcomed, cared for, and treated with respect (I.10, 1998). Many Provinces continue to affirm that same gender marriage is not permissible. Lambeth Resolution I.10 (1998) states that the “legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised. 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.

This, of course, did not make everyone happy, but it did describe the current reality of the Anglican Communion. And this seems a particularly significant statement, “Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality.”

The Human Dignity document had much that was good and important that was good in it. But all the attention went to this one paragraph. Which was pretty much the opposite of how the rest of the Lambeth Conference went. Though the disagreement about human sexuality was in the air, most conversations, formal and informal were about other concerns. But, I did have some conversations in which the topic came up opr in which I brought it up. Here are some gleanings from those conversations:

·       On the bus from Heathrow to Canterbury, a bishop from an African province expressed impatience with those provinces who chose not to come (Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda) and indicated that he does not approve of their approach. To the Communion. He did not say anything about his own views regarding human sexuality but criticized the idea of boycotting and neglecting the fellowship of the Lambeth conference.

·       I had a long conversation with a South Sudanese bishop who I know well about the disagreements regarding sexuality in which it was clear that our disagreements on this are profound and deep. I pointed out that he considered me to be faithful, but I had come to a different conclusion. Among other things, I also observed that the church in South Sudan ordains women and has a woman bishop. Other provinces do not, and many, with whom he otherwise agreed, think that that is unbiblical as they interpret the scriptures. So, it is possible for faithful people to read the Bible seriously and come to different conclusions. He did not accept the analogy and asserted that you cannot compare the two. It was also clear that this was connected in his mind with polygamy which is still common in South Sudan. Still, he noted his affection for a gay bishop he knows in spite of his conviction that that bishop is “living in sin.”

·       I had a similar conversation with another South Sudanese bishop who was equally clear that he did not see much room for disagreeing on how to faithfully understand same-sex marriage. I again explained how my own thinking had changed. We did not exactly “agree to disagree” but we remained on friendly terms.

·       A Sudanese bishop observed that the people on the ground in the villages of his province cannot wrap their heads around the idle of same-sex relationships. It is culturally foreign. He also noted that his church exists in a tenuous position under an oppressive government shaped by a radical version of Islam. The threat of violence and perhaps being declared an illegal organization are not idle concerns for them. He and other Sudanese bishops (and other bishops from particular provinces) were concerned about the ramifications and potential backlash their people would face back home depending how things went at the Conference.

·       An American bishop observed that part of our dilemma is that we hear from the bishops of some provinces that being associated too closely with those provinces that celebrate same-sex marriage and allow for those who are so married to be ordained puts their people and churches at real risk. But GLBT+ people in America and elsewhere also feel threatened. The concerns of both are real.

·       Most Sudanese and South Sudanese bishops and perhaps some others did not receive communion with the rest of us as a matter of conscience which was painful. But they remained otherwise engaged. This was disappointing and frustrating. In one conversation a Kenyan bishop said that this was no way to treat the holy Sacrament. A South Sudanese bishop replied that his archbishop had told him to. It is also clear that there is a range of views of Holy Communion ranging from a more catholic, “high” understanding, to a more Protestant, “low” understanding (just another of the important things about which we disagree in the Anglican Communion).

·       At our formal session on Human Dignity, the Archbishop of Canterbury read his letter to the bishops of the Anglican Communion (Here). He elaborated on that letter in what I believe to brilliant and significant remarks (found here). The letter and his remarks charted a course for a Communion marked by unity and plurality, a Communion of provinces which are autonomous, yet interdependent. He affirmed that there is a plurality of understanding of human sexuality faithfully arrived at. Toward the end of his remarks, he made this significant statement, “I am very conscious that the Archbishop of Canterbury is to be a focus of unity and is an Instrument of Communion. That is a priority. Truth and unity must be held together, but Church history also says that this sometimes takes a very long time to reach a point where different teaching is rejected or received. I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline or exclude a church of the Anglican Communion. I will not do so.”

·       When we formally discussed the issue in our small group conversations, a South Sudanese bishop said, “God forbid that hate would come from my heart, but I hold with the tradition.” He also observed that the majority of the Anglican Communion holds a traditional view on human sexuality. Then he paused and noted reflectively, “But, Elijah was in the minority. . .” He trailed off, leaving that a thought to be pondered.

In that same small group conversation, I explained briefly how I had come to change my mind on the topic. 

One of the South Sudanese bishops wondered, “At what point do we decide a disagreement is too deep and too basic to maintain communion?”

·       A Tanzanian bishop, as we talked over a meal, said that he and others need to do their homework, looking at the biblical and biological arguments regarding human sexuality before judging the conclusions to which others have arrived. He noted that some Tanzanian bishops opted not to come to the Lambeth Conference, but he believes most bishops of that province are where he is.

·       A bishop from the Indian subcontinent said that he believed that in 10 years the disagreement about sexuality will be like that of the ordination of women.

·       After the session in which the Archbishop of Canterbury read his letter and we discussed sexuality in our small groups, a bishop from the Province of Western Africa told me that this Lambeth Conference was the defeat of those (like the leaders of ACNA and GAFCON) who have wanted the Communion to be divided because of the disagreements regarding human sexuality. It had become clear that however broad or deep the disagreement is, the majority of bishops in the Anglican Communion were committed to remaining in communion (even if to varying degrees). He said that he thought those who were choosing to set themselves apart from the majority of the Communion should change their name to something other than Anglican. He also noted that he knew there were bishops from the provinces that boycotted this Lambeth Conference – Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda – would have liked to come but were forbidden to do so by their archbishops.

I knew in my head that there was considerable diversity in Africa and the rest of what is commonly called the Global South. But the conversations I had brought that diversity home. No one person or entity speaks the “Global South” or even for all those who by conviction do not think Same-sex relationships can be blessed. The Anglican Communion is much more complex than that. It also became more clear to me than I might have thought before that it would be a mistake to underestimate the strength of the bonds of affection that exist in the Anglican Communion and our connection to the See of Canterbury.


Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 1 (it was not all about sex)

Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 2 (it was not all about sex)

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