Lambeth Conference: Welby unites bishops with compromise on sexuality

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Congo's Archbishop Titre Ande addressed the Lambeth congress on Saturday, with Justin Welby also on the platformImage source, Neil Turner for The Lambeth Conference
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A rare global gathering of Anglican bishops from across the world has taken place in Canterbury

A mood of unity and self-satisfaction is prevalent at the end of this rare gathering of more than 650 Anglican bishops - they had come from all over the world, many from Africa where Anglican Christianity is growing at its fastest.

The Lambeth Conference is the once-a-decade meeting of bishops representing the many churches in the Anglican Communion and is chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Delays meant this was the first since 2008 and there had been speculation tensions could run high, with the risk even of division or the fracturing of the communion that represents more than 80 million people worldwide.

Though the conference was devoted to a gamut of issues, the jeopardy surrounded a predictable question which, nevertheless, many conservative churches said they saw as fundamental: homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

In fact, the reason the conference didn't take place in 2018 was because it was felt the communion was not ready to find a way forward on the issue.

For years, this community has wrestled with it, and now just a handful of the 46 churches in the communion conduct or bless same-sex marriages, and only a small minority allow gay clergy.

The archbishops of Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda boycotted this Lambeth Conference over the issue, protesting that any "recognition of homosexual relations" was biblical revisionism.

But if the ambition had been to hold things together among those who did attend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, appears to have found the formula for now.


It was set out in a pivotal speech in which, on the one hand, he reaffirmed a resolution passed by the Lambeth Conference in 1998 which said same sex marriage was wrong and "homosexual practices" are incompatible with scripture.

On the other hand, Archbishop Welby also said that churches (like those in Wales and Scotland) which moved away from that historical teaching, would not be sanctioned or condemned.

His focus appeared to be pragmatism, suggesting that for some churches it could even be dangerous to reform on same-sex marriage.

"For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the Church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches, to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence," he said.

Image source, Richard Washbrooke/Lambeth Conference Media/PA Wir
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Justin Welby gained a standing ovation for his speech which addressed sexuality

But equally, the archbishop said that in other countries it could be a reluctance to reform that is just as unthinkable and a similar threat to the Church.

Liberal and conservative bishops came together to give Archbishop Welby a standing ovation and a crisis seemed to have been averted.

Toksvig love appeal

But one of the two positions he validated sees people who happen to be gay as fundamentally unequal. As much as the Archbishop of Canterbury may have quelled some fires within the Anglican communion, the ramifications of what he says go far beyond the Church.

In her impassioned open letter to Archbishop Welby, Sandi Toksvig told of her dismay.

She said the signals he sent, in reaffirming the Church's long-held position that gay marriage was wrong, and that same-sex relationships defied scripture, put lives at risk. She cited the fact that young gay and transgender people were already much more likely to contemplate suicide.

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Sandi Toksvig said Archbishop Welby had made a"mistake"

"Do you know why? For many it's because they don't feel loved and love, Justin, is supposed to be at the core of what you do," the broadcaster said.

In her view, the archbishop had favoured unity of the institution ahead of doing the right thing.

However, the Archbishop of Canterbury does not have any power to issue directives. The Church of England is just one of many churches in the communion and the archbishop is defined as "first among equals" within it.

But as the historical centre, the seat of Anglicanism, the Church of England and its primate do at least have the powerful opportunity to influence by example.

It happened with the role of women, where some Anglican churches internationally took their lead from the Church of England in ordaining women, to the point where nearly 100 of those attending this Lambeth Conference were women, five times more than the last one.

On same-sex marriage though, the Church is in no position to urge others to change because it has not done so itself. A consultation process is due to report later this year, but gay rights advocates within the Church are not confident it will lead to equality.

Image source, PA Media
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Justin Welby led the opening service of the conference

Given the countries in which Anglicanism is growing, it is conservative views that are growing globally. Conservative Anglican churches in Africa or Asia will not, of course, have any say in the Church of England process. But if gay marriage is allowed in the Church here, it could well strain relations.

Some conservative African bishops at the conference suggested that if the Church of England allowed gay marriage it would leave them, and not English bishops, as the true Anglicans.

"We will be the ones coming to England and going to Canterbury. Let those with a revisionist theology go and form something else," the Archbishop of South Sudan, Justin Badi, told me, drawing comparisons with the way in which missionaries had journeyed to Africa.

Existential threat

Many other bishops at the conference bristle at the fact there has been so much focus in the media and outside world on the issue of sexuality.

They point to the fellowship and collaboration on issues like poverty and conflict that has been fostered during the conference, and give those as important examples of why it is crucial to keep the communion together.

But it is Justin Welby himself who talked about the issue of same-sex marriage as being a potential existential threat to the church - in some countries if churches challenge the hard line historical position on it, in others if they do not make progress.

The archbishop may well have been talking about his own Church in the latter category, as one of those that needed to reform if it is to stay relevant and avoid being subject to contempt.

He may feel that he has made a significant compromise by saying national churches choosing to conduct same-sex marriages will not be sanctioned, but here at home, even just by entertaining and reaffirming a position that allows gay people to be viewed unequally, as he did at this conference, he risks doing precisely what he says should be avoided.