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From Bishop Sean: Thoughts on the Lambeth Conference

Dear People of God in Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York:

Tomorrow I will fly to London and then travel by bus to Canterbury, England, where the Lambeth Conference of bishops from across the Anglican Communion will take place from July 26 until August 8. This is my second time attending the Lambeth Conference, which has taken place every decade or so since 1867.

We have been preparing for this Lambeth Conference, which was originally scheduled for 2020, for quite some time. The theme, set by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, is “God’s Church for God’s World,” and the conference has been billed as an opportunity for “prayer and reflection, fellowship and dialogue on church and world affairs.” Together with many of my fellow Episcopal Church bishops, I have been looking forward to building new relationships, renewing old acquaintances, and learning more about how bishops and dioceses across the world are addressing the challenges we have in common, including the need for new evangelism strategies, the existential threat of climate change, and the rising tide of authoritarianism and anti-democratic movements. The opportunity to participate in this faithful and necessary work is the reason I decided to invest my time and our dioceses’ resources to attend this Lambeth Conference, where I will stay with other bishops in a dormitory at the University of Kent.

Then, last week, Archbishop Welby sent a ten-part, 58-page study document titled “Lambeth Calls” to each of us who will attend the conference and announced that we will be asked to vote on each of the “calls” using electronic devices.  The official term for what we will do is “affirm” these calls, and in keeping with that term, there will not be an option to vote no—only to affirm each statement or to say that we will commit ourselves to further discernment. This surprise announcement was particularly distasteful to many Episcopal Church bishops because one of the “calls” asks us to affirm a statement made by the 1998 Lambeth Conference, known as Lambeth 1.10, that many of us understand to be homophobic and harmful to faithful LGBTQ Christians across the world.

I am extremely dismayed about this sudden reversal of everything we have been told for years about the purpose and format of this Lambeth Conference. But I am not surprised that we have, yet again, been subjected to the kind of political subterfuge that seems too often to be a hallmark of Anglican Communion politics. Plans for this Lambeth Conference have been underway for years, and so it seems strategic rather than accidental that the Archbishop of Canterbury released a dense 58-page theological and policy document and announced a surprise voting plan a week before the meeting. And whatever agenda he may be advancing, it is not consistent with the Episcopal Church’s long and faithful journey toward the full inclusion of LGBTQ people.

On Wednesday, the Episcopal Church bishops who are attending the Lambeth Conference will meet in person to discuss this unwelcome development and decide how we will respond. In the meantime, as I head to England, I want to be clear on two points:

The Lambeth Conference plays an important role in maintaining the mission relationships and historic ties among 40 member churches in more than 165 countries, and it provides bishops with valuable opportunities to learn from one another and create and sustain mission relationships. But neither the Lambeth Conference nor any other part of the Anglican Communion has any authority in the internal matters of the Episcopal Church (or any other member church). In the Episcopal Church, the General Convention is the highest authority on church policy and canon law, and our General Convention has been clear: Our church is deeply committed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life and witness of the church and in civil society as well. Nothing that happens at this Lambeth Conference or at any other Anglican Communion meeting can change that. I ask that no matter what headlines or social media say in the next two weeks, you will work hard to assure people in your congregations and communities that our churches are open and affirming places for all of God’s children and will remain so.

The second point is that, while a meeting of Anglican bishops can be a valuable and even sometimes an impressive occasion, the real value of the Anglican Communion is the relationships among the tens of millions of people across the world, including all of you, who worship and serve in churches in the Anglican tradition. My purpose in traveling to Canterbury is to learn from bishops who serve in contexts that are very different from our own, but whose approach to the challenges of today’s world can benefit our ministry here in our diocesan partnership.

I will be in touch as the meeting unfolds. Please pray for me and for all the bishops who are traveling toward this troubled Lambeth Conference.

Faithfully,