Westminster seminar explores ‘conflict and reconciliation’ in the Anglican Communion

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Dec 13, 2019

Westminster Abbey is hosting a series of five daylong seminars between November 2019 and April 2020, in advance of the Lambeth Conference, to be held July 23-Aug. 5, 2020, in Canterbury, England. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – London] As bishops from across the Anglican Communion prepare to gather next summer in Canterbury for the 2020 Lambeth Conference, human sexuality remains a divisive topic, though reconciliation may be possible through appreciation for creation, deep listening and following ecumenical examples toward unity.

“God committed God’s self to diversity by the act of creation,” said the Rt. Rev. Victor Atta-Baffoe, bishop of Cape Coast in Ghana, as outlined in the first two chapters of Genesis, and a Christian theology of cultural diversity must be based in two fundamental church doctrines: the act of creation and unity of the human race, and the universality of the church.

“The church is a messenger of Christ and must keep in mind the cultural dimensions and identities of human communities; the existence of the multicultural identities in the church is to help improve our knowledge and experiences of the creation of God. It [the church] is also called to denounce all forms of isolationism in order to promote cultural diversity, sensitivity and reconciliation,” continued Atta-Baffoe, reading from his paper “Cultural diversity in the life of Christ,” presented Dec. 9 during an ecclesiological seminar at Westminster Abbey.

Atta-Baffoe was among six speakers to present papers during the seminar exploring “Conflict and reconciliation within the Anglican Communion.” The presenters represented four Anglican provinces – the Church of the Province of West Africa, the Church of England, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church of Canada – plus one ecumenical partner.

This was the second of five daylong events in a seminar series hosted by Westminster Abbey, in partnership with the Anglican Communion Office. The one-day seminars have been scheduled between November 2019 and April 2020, in advance of the 2020 Lambeth Conference, to be held July 23-Aug. 5 in Canterbury, England. Admission to the seminars is free, but tickets are required and seating is limited. Some 40 people attended the Dec. 9 seminar in the abbey’s Jerusalem Chamber.

The first seminar in the series explored the fundamentals of Anglicanism. The next seminar, “Harvesting the fruits of international dialogue,” is scheduled for Feb. 17. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge will publish a volume of the papers presented during the series.

“One of the offers that the abbey can make to the wider Anglican Communion is the ability to convene and to put together projects which can be of help for the wider communion,” the Rev. Jamie Hawkey, the abbey’s canon theologian, told Episcopal News Service during the lunch break. “So, I thought in advance of the [Lambeth] conference, one of the things we could do would be to offer to the communion this series of five days’ symposia looking at the identity and the nature of Anglicanism at this point in the 21st century.”

At the moment, the Anglican Communion is undergoing considerable strain, and the inclination is “to move into ever more bureaucratic ways of managing difference,” Hawkey said. “The answer, I think, to ecclesial difference, the answer to ecclesial diversity, is to intensify the gift of communion.”

Pictured at the Dec. 9 seminar at Westminster Abbey are from left, the Rt. Rev. Victor Atta-Baffoe, the Rev. Susan Durber, the Most Rev. Linda Nicholls, the Rev. Phil Groves, the Rev. Mark Chapman, the Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt and the Rev. Jamie Hawkey. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

Founded in 1867, the Anglican Communion is the world’s third-largest Christian communion, now with 40 provinces in 138 countries. The first Lambeth Conference was called in 1867 to address disputes that had arisen in South Africa over the practice of polygamy and other theological teachings. Then-Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley invited all 144 of the communion’s bishops to the first conference, but only 76 attended, in part because some felt the gathering would only increase confusion about the controversy, according to an 1889 book.

“It’s important to note that the Anglican Communion was born in conflict and concern,” noted by the Rev. Mark Chapman, in his paper, “Conflict, Sexuality, and Identity, 1998-2019,” at the seminar’s outset, giving the historical context of the conflict in the communion.

Unlike other worldwide religious communions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, no real binding laws exist in the Anglican Communion, said Chapman, a priest in the Church of England and a professor of history and modern theology at the University of Oxford.

“Despite calls for a centralized pattern of authority, the resolutions of the bishops have been nothing more than advisory and have no canonical status. Instead, individual churches are free to act as they see fit,” he said.

“Nevertheless, from the mid-19th century, when the communion began to develop as a backdrop to the spread of the British Empire, and to some extent, also to the American influence overseas, consultative bodies have emerged for the different churches to discuss matters of mutual concern.”

The Lambeth Conference of Bishops convenes approximately every 10 years. It is considered one of four “Instruments of Communion,” or “Unity,” along with the archbishop of Canterbury, who is considered to be the bishops’ “first among equals”; the Primates Meeting, established in 1978; and the Anglican Consultative Council, created at the 1968 Lambeth Conference.

The Anglican Consultative Council, or ACC, and the Primates Meeting emerged “out of the need to make decisions more efficiently and in between the gatherings of bishops,” said Chapman.

As in 1867, the archbishop of Canterbury issues invitations to the Lambeth Conference. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has invited bishops and a majority of spouses from the Anglican Communion’s 40 provinces and its five extra-provincial areas (Ceylon, Portugal, Spain, Bermuda and the Falkland Islands) to the 2020 gathering at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

In February 2019, however, Anglican Communion Secretary General Josiah Idowu-Fearon announced via a blog post that Welby would not extend the invitation to spouses of bishops in same-sex marriages.

In the blog post, Idowu-Fearon wrote that the invitation process needed to take into account the Anglican Communion’s position on marriage, which is that of a lifelong union between a man and a woman, as laid out in the much-debated Lambeth 1998 Resolution 110.

As it stands, Welby’s decision applies to three bishops – two in the United States and one in the Anglican Church of Canada; however, two additional bishops in same-sex marriages have been elected in The Episcopal Church with consecrations scheduled for February and April 2020.

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council and House of Bishops, as well as a number of dioceses, have objected to Welby’s decision, though by inviting “every active bishop,” Welby has gone further than then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who refused to invite the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson to the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

The 2008 Lambeth Conference made international headlines when it was thought the Anglican Communion would split over issues of human sexuality and progressive Western influence, precipitated in 2002 when the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Westminster Synod approved blessings for couples in same-sex unions. And, then in 2003, The Episcopal Church elected and later consecrated Robinson, now-retired New Hampshire bishop, as the first openly gay, partnered bishop in the Anglican Communion.

Not unlike in 1867, some bishops decided to boycott the 2008 Lambeth Conference and met instead as the Global Anglican Future Conference, or GAFCON. The same bishops plan to boycott Lambeth 2020 and again will hold an alternative conference of bishops in Rwanda in June.

The Canadian and American churches’ actions led to the publication of the 2004 Windsor Report, which called for an Anglican Covenant to address common identity and exercise of autonomy, among other communion issues, and for a moratorium on future actions until the church could be of one mind.

Then, in 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, The Episcopal Church amended its marriage canon in favor of marriage equality for all Episcopalians.

Meeting in October 2017 in Canterbury, the primates issued a communiqué that reiterated their overwhelming desire to walk together in unity, albeit from a distance when faced with differences over issues of human sexuality, such as marriage equality, in their respective provinces. The communiqué built upon a commitment first stated in the 2004 Windsor Report in regard to unity and the Instruments of Communion.

“What this bears witness to is the understanding that the churches of the Anglican Communion, if that Communion is to mean anything at all, are obliged to move together, to walk together in synodality,” the report read.

The concept of “synodality” was something Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt addressed in his paper, “Walking together and walking apart: Explorations in Anglican Synodality.”

The Windsor Report, “to avoid walking apart, called for moratoria across the board on the consecration of bishops in same-sex relationships and on the authorization of liturgies for blessing same-sex relationships and on cross-border interventions,” said Bauerschmidt. “The language of walking together and walking apart has persisted in the communion, though usage has developed even as the moratoria Windsor called for went unobserved in many places.”

In January of this year, Bauerschmidt announced that Bishop Brian Cole of East Tennessee will “provide pastoral support” to couples, clergy and congregations who want to solemnize same-sex marriages in Bauerschmidt’s diocese, the Diocese of Tennessee. His announcement came in response to the 79th General Convention Resolution B012, which said that bishops who do not agree with same-sex marriage rites “shall invite, as necessary,” another Episcopal Church bishop to provide “pastoral support” for same-sex couples wishing to marry in their dioceses.

Earlier this year, during its General Synod, the Anglican Church of Canada failed to pass a resolution to amend its marriage canon to expressly allow for the solemnization of same-sex marriage, but later its House of Bishops issued a communiqué allowing diocese-based decisions on same-sex marriage according to their contexts and convictions.

“We all desire to belong to be welcomed and loved in a community whether in our family or in other communities, we yearn for that place. Such places where you are known and loved even if and when you fail to live up to the values you profess, a place that calls for the best from you and will forgive your failures. A place to give to others from your own gifts, a place to serve and be served, and a place where glimpses of the kingdom of God have seen,” said Archbishop Linda Nicholls, in her paper, “Reconciliation: Our Call and Vocation.”

“This is the promise of the family of God, loved and forgiven. We belong by baptism to that family and are called to offer the same to others drawing the circle wide so that all may know the salvation of God,” she said. “That same community that can love and forgive also has the potential to be shattered by our inability to live into all that is required, through lack of forgiveness, selfishness, greed, lust or any of the sins of in life that individuals and communities commit resulting in broken relationships. If we are to be faithful to God and to our baptism, we are called to create communities of grace and practice reconciliation as an essential and daily habit.”

Nicholls was elected 14th primate of the Anglican Church of Canada during its July synod. During that same synod, the Canadian church expanded its “full communion recognition” with The Episcopal Church.

Nicholls, as with the Rev. Phil Groves, who later spoke, was involved in Continuing Indaba, a project intended to encourage dialogue among Episcopalians and Anglicans across the communion.

Beyond issues of human sexuality and despite economic, societal and other cultural differences, communion members share many of the same concerns, including those related to climate change, human migration and authoritarianism.

“The resilience of the Anglican Communion should give us hope. We just have those bonds of affection that will take us into the future,” said Groves, the former director of the Continuing Indaba and Mutual Listening Process launched in 2009, in a conversation with ENS following the seminar where he presented a paper, “Confidence in Communion.”

“Those [bonds of affection] are far stronger than we ever imagined,” said Groves, who is now the convener of the Anglican Peace and Justice Network.

Christian churches outside the Anglican Communion have recognized it for the value it places on peacemaking and reconciliation, said the Rev. Susan Durber, moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order and a minister in the United Reformed Church in England.

“Those of us outside the communion have seen with admiration how you have worked hard to find ways to find reconciliation, for example, through that Indaba process, through the slow kind of authentic conversation that is about furthering and deepening relationships, and community life rather than simply solving problems,” said Durber, offering the ecumenical perspective.

“The Anglican Communion, I can see, has a real commitment to resolving disharmony into reconciliation and often exhibits a level of patience that the wider world simply finds incomprehensible,” she said. “In a world so fractured by difference while also so immediately in touch with itself all the time, the commitment to the slow, deep and face-to-face conversations that you have is not only encouraging, but inspiring.”

– Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service.