Lambeth Conference in jeopardy over homosexuality row

Anglican bishops at the closing ceremony of the last Lambeth Conference in 2008. The next conference is due to take place in 2018.PA

The next Lambeth Conference, the ten-yearly gathering of more than 600 Anglican bishops from around the world, is in jeopardy because of the row over homosexuality that is dividing the Church.

The Anglican Communion, the body that represents the episcopal leadership of millions of Anglicans worldwide led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, is split by the battle between its conservative and liberal wings over gay relationships and gay ordination.

The last meeting in Canterbury in 2008 was marred by boycotts by African and other Global South bishops who objected to the consecration of the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in the United States. Other bishops and archbishops who did attend however were incensed that Bishop Gene was not himself invited out of an attempt to appease the conservative wing.

The news was revealed by George Conger, the leading conservative commentator, after it was disclosed by a leading liberal, Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church in the US and former marine biologist, who at the recent meeting of the US House of Bishops in Taiwan announced she will not seek to stand for a second nine-year term.

It was immediately denied by Lambeth Palace, London HQ of Archbishop Justin Welby.

However, Conger's source, a report by the US church's own Episcopal News Service, is still online. ENS reports that in response to a question from US Rochester Bishop Prince Singh about budgeting for the next Lambeth Conference, and speculation about when and if the gathering will be held, Presiding Bishop Schori told the bishops that the conference will probably not happen in 2018.

This would be a big break with tradition as the events normally take place every ten years.

PB Schori said no planning or fundraising had taken place for a 2018 meeting. She continued that Archbishop Welby "has been very clear that he is not going to call a Lambeth [Conference] until he is reasonably certain that the vast majority of bishops would attend. It needs to be preceded by a primates meeting at which a vast majority of primates are present.

"As he continues his visits around the communion to those primates it's unlikely that he will call such a meeting at all until at least a year from now or probably 18 months from now. Therefore I think we are looking at 2019, more likely 2020, before a Lambeth Conference."

Whenever the next Lambeth Conference occurs "it will have a rather different format," she predicted. For instance, it is likely that spouses will not attend "simply because of scale issues and regional contextual issues. Bishops' spouses fill very different roles in different parts of the communion and the feedback from the last one was that it did not serve the spouses particularly well."

Removing the popular bishops' spouses agenda would at least resolve the "issue" of married gay bishops. The Church of England bishops along with the majority of Anglican bishops worldwide remain resolutely opposed to allowing gay clergy to marry, even though gay marriage is now legal in secular law in Britain and elsewhere. In his new book the Bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson claims that one in ten of Church of England bishops are secretly gay. The campaigner Peter Tatchell told Christian Today this week that he intends to out some of these if they do not out themselves.

A spokeswoman for the Archbishop of Canterbury denied Conger's claim that the conference had been cancelled. She said no decision had been made or conclusions reached and the Archbishop was still visiting primates around the world and listening to their views. He is "looking at all options," she said.

Conger, writing in Anglican Link, said: "The precarious state of the Anglican Communion has led the Archbishop of Canterbury to postpone indefinitely the every ten year meeting of the bishops of the Anglican Communion."

Conger continues: "First held in 1867 in London at Lambeth Palace, the Lambeth Conferences have gathered the bishops of the Anglican Communion every ten years to discuss the common issues facing the wider church. The conferences have been postponed only twice. The 1918 gathering was postponed to 1920 due to the First World War, and the 1940 conference was postponed to 1948 because of the Second World War."

As he writes, resolutions and debates have no juridical value as each province is governed by its own canon law. But the pronouncements do carry great moral and spiritual authority. The 1930 Conference's endorsement of contraception, for example, provided the foundation for the Episcopal Church to change its formal view of the morality of birth control in 1948. In 1998, the Conference restated the Anglican Communion's formal view that homosexual activity was immoral.

Christian Today has learned that should the conference go ahead, a boycott is indeed highly likely as many of the conservative Global South bishops would prefer to continue under the umbrella of their alternative leadership structure, Gafcon.

Andrew Symes of Anglican Mainstream, the leading conservative organisation, said: "My understanding is that no decision has been made about the next Lambeth, but clearly Archbishop Justin would want such a gathering to a) have a clear purpose b) have the support of the majority of Bishops of the Anglican Communion, and especially a good representation from the Global South, and c) be affordable.

"The Archbishop is working hard to bring this about with his marathon schedule of personal visits around the Provinces. But I think that as long as headlines about the Church of England indicate a continuing liberal trajectory, and TEC and the Church of Canada continue to exert their influence over 'indaba' initiatives such as the facilitated conversations, Global South church leaders will see no point in committing resources to attending another Lambeth conference when the issues that caused such division and led to the formation of GAFCON have not been addressed or resolved. They would rather invest in GAFCON."

"Indaba" is a reference to the discussion-style gatherings introduced by Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams to the 2008 conference in an attempt to stem the divisions.