So now what was supposed to be walking, listening, and worshipping has pretty suddenly become debating, disagreeing, and deciding. And how is this going to make the “stop the steal” folks be in dialogue with the “January 6 was an insurrection” folks, or the “Covid isn’t real” cousins find a safe space to talk to the “My mask protects you” cousins? Probably it won’t and you will end up with food on the floor.
Until the 19th of July, about eight days before the start of the Lambeth Conference, the gathering was the first kind of Christmas party—at least so far as most of those invited knew. Then that day a message came to bishops who had registered to attend the meeting sharing with them a document containing ten “Lambeth Calls” documents—basically, position papers on various topics, ranging the spectrum from apple pie to hand grenade. And in a section called “How bishops approve Lambeth Calls” (which does sort of tip the hand about desired outcomes, huh?) there is a pretty big change in the nature of the party, because now we are expected to make decisions:
“[F]or each decision there will be two choices for each bishop to make: [either] ‘This Call speaks for me. I add my voice to it and commit myself to take the action I can to implement it’ [or] ‘This Call requires further discernment. I commit my voice to the ongoing process.’”
Which is basically the choice between “Yes” and “Yes, but not yet.”
It is said by the document that the papers were each drafted by “Drafting Groups,” but aside from identifying the (all male) lead authors of the ten papers you can't tell who the authors are. The opacity of the drafting process reaches almost comic heights; one of the footnotes seems to be the directory path to the location of an (inaccessible) file on a contributor’s personal hard drive.
Leaving aside the high-school-social-club-level, last-minute-switcheroo antics, there is a revelation and a tragedy to talk about here.
1. The revelation is about the difference between ecclesial polities (a fancy way of saying, “how a church governs itself”) that regard deliberative processes as “the thing we talk about doing and perform doing whenever we’re being watched” and those that regard deliberative processes as “the fundamental commitment we make to each other to study together and talk together and decide together and work together in a way the widest number of people can participate in.”
To say this in different terms, what this process ends up revealing is that the thing that most divides the different Provinces in the Anglican Communion is not actually theology or even positions on questions like human sexuality or the climate emergency or safeguarding. It’s polity—who gets to be included in the conversation; how the conversation is shaped, bounded, and held; what the authority of the conversation is in discerning the guidance of the Holy Spirit as it calls to the church across the future.
No one who takes that second kind of process seriously would dump ten papers addressing immensely important topics on participants drawn from places and cultures all over the globe eight days in advance together with a reminder/ultimatum that they would have to decide on them using “electronic devices” and a binary up-or-sort-of-up choice. You would have to come from a culture of something like democratic centralism to think that was a good process. But if you did, you would think it was a fine process.
So what is revealed here is that at least some Anglican Provinces think that’s really a good process, and some others will pretty certainly think it’s really an awful process. That’s probably the single most important, most intractable difference in the Communion today, and not the rest of the stuff we usually argue about. All the rest pretty much flows from that.
2. The tragedy is that there is actually a lot of good stuff in these papers, some of it really good, and some of the really good stuff is in (intentionally?) close proximity to some really, um, weird stuff.
This is how you can get a paragraph that confesses “....international Anglicanism often emerged in the context of colonialism. We acknowledge the existence and ongoing impact of an imperialist Anglicanism involved in dehumanizing practices predicated upon cultural and racial supremacy” (right!), followed by a paragraph that says “A commitment to human dignity means the church stands in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized and stands in witness against injustice as the poor and the marginalized” (preach!), followed by a paragraph that says “It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole 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. It is the mind of the Communion to uphold faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union.” (Wait, what?)
Well, no, that is not the “mind of the Anglican Communion.” The whole reason that you asked some of the spouses to stay home was that at least in their part of the Anglican Communion they are regarded unapologetically as legit children of God.
But the play here is pretty obvious, right? Who wants to be seen voting against a great statement acknowledging our colonial past and condemning our unequal present? How clever!
So now what? After all it is the Archbishop’s Christmas party (although, oh right, we are paying to go), and he can ask us to do anything, even play charades (which might actually be better for understanding across cultural differences) if he wants to. Many of the folks traveling to the meeting are already en route, and have likely not even seen the message or the papers or grasped how the party has changed. (I see pictures of them traipsing across Scotland or going to museums in the Netherlands, and other not-great-for-studying-white-paper venues.)
I suppose you could just declare yourself to be a Conscientious Objector to the idea of using a consultative meeting for the purpose of up-or-down votes claiming to be binding in some way, and leave your “electronic device” somewhere it can’t register one or another form of “yes.” (I am thinking that is what I’ll do.) Or you could try to collect an actual consultative conversation among willing participants in a place apart from the Family Feud tally board.
Whatever happens, it won’t be the gathering that was first on the invitation. No wonder the Queen ditched the garden party.