July 19, 2024

politics of law

Politics and Law

Lambeth Conference: going from ‘resolutions’ to ‘calls’

17 min read

Andrew Goddard writes: The question of who will be attending Lambeth which was explored in the first article last week is distinct from, but connected to, the question of where Lambeth is going, what it will do, what outcomes are being sought. The significant recent development here is the announcement that the Archbishop of Canterbury has decided that this Conference will issue “Calls” rather than passing “Resolutions” (as at every Conference from 1867 to 1998) or saying nothing formally at all (as happened in 2008). So far these have been explained in a video, on a web page and in a short booklet and there will apparently be a press conference relating to them in coming days.

How did we get here? The Path To “Calls”

Although there had been whispers for some time that the Conference would return to issuing some form of statement but these might not be “Resolutions”, the announcement that the bishops would be issuing “Calls” has appeared rather late in the day and raises a large number of important and still unanswered questions.

The idea appears to be developing comments made in Towards A Symphony of Instruments: A Historical and Theological Consideration of the Instruments of Communion of the Anglican Communion which was produced by IASCUFO (The Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith & Order) for the 15th Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meeting in 2013. That paper was supplemented by a shorter paper (Instruments of Communion: Gifts, Signs and Stewardship) from IASCUFO for ACC-16 in 2016. The longer paper noted:

Although the Lambeth Conference of 2008 was found to be deeply fruitful by the participants, it was in a sense the exception that proves the rule in that it did not overtly address the Church and the world. Lambeth Conferences have a teaching or guiding responsibility. Future Conferences will need to resume this role, and the Anglican faithful look to the bishops for this. (para 2.3.4).

It proceeded to warn, in a section on the future shape of the Conference that seems to have influenced this latest development,

The Conference might be well advised to exercise restraint—a self-denying ordinance— in generating resolutions, so that when it has something rather major to say, the message comes across loud and clear, and is not drowned in a sea of words. At the least, the resolutions could be layered in importance, as the Windsor Report suggested, so that the crucial ones stand out. Even better, the Conference might decide that resolutions were not the most appropriate vehicle for what they wanted to say and that ‘affirmations’ or a pastoral letter (as attempted by Lambeth 1988) might be more helpful (2.4.1, italics added)

It then offered the following reflections:

We might imagine that, at times when tensions were running high in the Communion, it would not be possible for the Lambeth Conference to make any public statement at all. That does not mean that it should not meet. The Lambeth Conference held in 2008 was designed to be without resolutions: it needed to fulfil a different function on that occasion. It is likely that strong tensions will persist in the Communion and in the episcopate for the foreseeable future, but that need not mean that meetings of the Lambeth Conference to come can have nothing to say. It should be possible for them to identify areas on which they can agree and thus to make certain affirmations to the Church and the world on those topics, bracketing out areas of violent disagreement and so avoiding an unseemly and destructive split (2.4.2)

What, if anything, has really changed?

Perhaps the most fundamental question is whether “Calls” is simply a new label on the same old “Resolutions” tin (effectively a rebranding with no substantial change, which Martin Davie has compared to Opal Fruits becoming Starburst) or something that represents a more substantial shift in the work of this crucial Instrument. Could it be a development which (whether intended to do so or not) potentially reconfigures and diminishes the Conference’s authority and alters the underlying meaning of what is to be a communion of churches? 

On the one hand it is being said that “A ‘Call’ represents what the so-called ‘resolutions’ did up to the conference of 1998” (Booklet, p. 6; it is unclear whether this is meant to imply something changed in relation to resolutions in 1998 or is better expressed as “what resolutions have always done”) and yet this announcement is also being heralded at the same time by Archbishop Justin as “a hugely exciting development in the life of the Communion” in his video. 

It is noteworthy that it is being clearly said that this change has been decided (doubtless after consultation) by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It has been announced on the eve of the Conference following a long period of shared conversations, not presented as a proposal for consideration during those conversations or for the gathered bishops themselves to decide upon (as IASCUFO suggested). It may be that some of the Communion’s bishops are concerned that it does alter, effectively diminish, the authority and status of the Conference’s pronouncements and the delicate balance between provincial autonomy and interdependence expressed through mutual submission. It may also be that some who can in good conscience attend a Conference with those they cannot recognise as faithful bishops of the Communion will now struggle with being expected to speak together with them collegially and authoritatively as though they do recognise them as faithful fellow bishops. 

It was these latter concerns that led to one of the “walking together” consequences agreed in 2016 being that representatives of certain churches “while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion… will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity”. If this continues to be a concern and a necessary element of any “walking together but at a significant distance” then there appears to be a stark choice. Either these calls will have to steer clear of issues of doctrine or polity or bishops who have (in the words from 2016) supported “unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity” which are “considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion” will not be able to be involved in the framing and issuing of such calls. 

Although a certain amount of information has been released about these calls (such as the 9 themes they will cover) major questions remain about many key areas including their rationale and the implications for authority within the life of the Communion, structure and content and connection to the Conference as a body.

What is the rationale for changing to “Calls” and does this change the Conference’s authority?

The rationale offered by Archbishop Justin for making this change as set out in the recently released booklet and summarised in his video and the website’s FAQs is that “the word resolution implies legal decision which is binding and that goes beyond the powers of the conference” (p. 6). It is therefore claimed that

a ‘Call’ represents what the so-called ‘resolutions’ did up to the conference of 1998. A call is a decision of the conference which comes as an appeal to each church of the Communion to consider carefully, and hopefully to follow it and respond to it in its own situation.

This raises a number of questions and concerns. It has quite simply never been the case that the resolutions of the Conference had or claimed to have or were understood to have binding legal force. Nor is this the only or even the most common use of the term. None of us, for example, see our new year resolutions in these terms. What is the case is that the resolutions have until 1998 been recognised as carrying a significant moral authority deriving from them being the resolutions agreed by bishops of the church after meeting to take counsel together. In the words of “Towards a Symphony of the Instruments” in its discussion of the Conference’s authority: 

The authority of the Lambeth Conference resides in the office and ministry of those who compose it: the bishops of the Anglican Communion. Its authority is not something extrinsic that some external body imparts to the Conference…Their office also reflects something of the four credal marks of the Church—unity, holiness, apostolicity and catholicity—since bishops have a special, though not exclusive, responsibility for the welfare and well-being of the Church, in terms of its unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, helping the Church to be the Church, and all this is reflected in their ordination. As the Windsor Continuation Group (WCG) points out, the fact that the Lambeth Conference is ‘a body composed of those who by their ordination to the episcopate have been given apostolic responsibility to govern means that the resolutions of a Lambeth Conference may be considered to have an intrinsic authority which is inherent in their members gathered together’ (2.3.7)

This is why the events since 1998 have caused such a scandal within the Communion. It is why so many bishops of the Communion are so unhappy with the failure to address this properly and with the invitations to the Conference, making them likely either to refuse to attend at all or to demonstrate in other ways their impaired communion with other bishops present. As IASCUFO note (2.3.8, italics added):

Since the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the Communion has witnessed the unprecedented situation of some bishops publicly repudiating, by their words and their actions, particular resolutions of the Lambeth Conference, notably those concerned with human sexuality or the integrity of provincial boundaries. In response to those who have repudiated certain resolutions of the Lambeth Conference out of hand, it is important to re-affirm that the moral and pastoral authority of the Anglican episcopate should be quite sufficient for any faithful Anglican and for any provincial synod of the Communion to accept. ‘The resolutions may not always be perfectly expressed, they may not get the balance of various elements quite right and they may need to be revisited at a later date, but they should never be dismissed out of hand.’ (Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism, p. 61).

The question is whether this understanding of the significant authority of Conference pronouncements is now being abandoned or at least significantly modified by the change to “Calls” and the description being currently offered of them. It may of course be that this authority has already been destroyed, or at least severely diminished, by continuing to grant full recognition to bishops who have in their ministries and own lives repudiated Lambeth I.10 and the consequent conscientious refusal of so many bishops to therefore attend the Conference alongside them. 

In his video Archbishop Justin further explains the use of “Call” rather than “Resolution” by saying that the Lambeth Conference “is not there to order people about” and that when the Lambeth Conference resolves something “it doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen. And that is a bit confusing. It means that it just gets offered to the whole Anglican Communion who are called to consider what it means”. He states that it is so as “to be absolutely clear about that” the decisions to be made will be “in the form of what are called ‘Calls’”. This means that “they will do what they say they are. They will call on the Anglican Communion, the whole Communion, to pray, and to think and reflect and for each province to decide on its response”. 

Although there is much truth in this account of Lambeth resolutions always having a “call” element and being subject to a process of reception in the wider church, this shift in terminology and emphasis and lack of an account of the inherent but non-legal authority of past resolutions (instead presenting the caricature of “ordering people about”) risks destabilising a carefully developed and nuanced equilibrium. The Archbishop’s language of each province simply hearing the call and having to “consider what it means” and “decide on its response” when combined with his failure to offer any vision of the significance of the Conference as a gathering of bishops or the importance and nature of mutual accountability and interdependence should raise some alarm bells. It seems to downplay the weight of moral authority traditionally granted to the actions of the Lambeth Conference and also to exaggerate the degree of autonomy provinces should consider themselves having in relation to the mind of the Communion expressed by its bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference. 

Another factor behind the current tensions is that for decades African Anglicans (on whom see David Goodhew’s recent Covenant article on Lambeth 2022 and African Anglicanism) respected such authority and the collegiality of the episcopate, including in relation to decisions made by Western bishops in relation to polygamy where they worked to persuade the Conference to reconsider its actions and be more pastorally accommodating while upholding Christian teaching on marriage. They finally succeeded in 1988, a century after the first very restrictive resolution was passed. It is not surprising that once certain Western bishops found themselves in a minority on homosexuality at the next Conference and responded by, within a few years, simply disregarding the mind of the Communion and asserting provincial autonomy this was inevitably understood by many, in a post-colonial context, as failing to respect, and seeking to reconfigure, the historic moral authority of the Conference just as it was no longer dominated by the Global North.

The rationale being offered for the change also fails to recognise that resolutions historically have often done much more than offer a call. They have, for example, often taught the faith. As IASCUFO’s report points out: 

As the Anglican ordination services show, it is inherent in the office of a bishop to guide and lead the flock of Christ and to teach and guard the faith…if the bishops at Lambeth are to speak to the Church and the world, it will be in fulfilment of their specific episcopal responsibilities: they will speak words of Christian teaching, guidance, or warning and give encouragement to the faithful to persevere in the way of Christ amid all the challenges of the modern world. In this way the resolutions and perhaps, even more, the section or committee reports help to build theological capacity for the Communion (2.3.4)

Conference resolutions have also ordered the life of the Communion and its relationship with other churches and communions. Neither of these, broadly matters of faith and order, are matters simply left for individual provinces to decide autonomously whether to accept or reject or to claim that rejection of them has no implications for the shared life of the Communion. In the famous words of the 1920 Conference, the independence of the churches of the Communion involves being “independent with the Christian freedom which recognises the restraints of truth and love. They are not free to deny the truth. They are not free to ignore the fellowship”.

What are the “Calls” going to do?

The structure of each “Call” seems to recognise some of these authoritative teaching aspects of past decisions by the bishops gathered at Lambeth. Very little detail has been given though it is rumoured that drafting has been taking place for some time and the “Calls” will, we are told, “include a summary on what the Christian Church has always taught about these matters” (p. 6). The Archbishop’s video says that they will be “carefully structured to talk about Scripture, about the tradition of the Church, and what the bishops assembled feel to be the way that God is calling them”. What is not clear is whether in so doing they can be held to state “Anglican Communion teaching on the subject” they address (to use the words used to describe Lambeth I.10 in the letter to the three Primates). 

If they are providing Anglican Communion teaching then they will indeed be very similar to resolutions in the past and much more than simply an offering for others to consider. They will be an expression of (in the words of the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant, 3.1.4) “episcopal collegiality worldwide” fulfilling the bishops’ calling of “guarding the faith and unity of the Communion and equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Eph 4.12) and mission”. Here again the question arises of whether many bishops invited and present can rightly be entrusted with that task given their past behaviour and its previously stated consequences. 

If the “Calls” do not constitute “Anglican Communion teaching” then this move is a much more radical development. It risks effectively evacuating the Communion of agreed teaching and shared doctrine, diminishing the moral authority traditionally recognised as inherent in the resolutions of bishops at the Lambeth Conference, and creating a much looser form of communion (what some have in the past called more a “federation”) among the provinces. If this proves to be the case it will have major implications both for the nature of the Communion and its relationship with other communions in ecumenical conversations.

A particular concern of course will be what may or may not be said in relation to the questions around sexuality which have caused division in the Communion. This is not directly referred to as an area of any one call although Archbishop Justin at the end of the video has said the Call process will

also deal with some of the contentious subjects, but actually not with the aim of a dramatic change to the church’s teaching, but on bringing us into deeper love for one another, and understanding how God is calling us to be God’s Church for God’s World

If the IASCUFO report is followed there is the possibility that – given the range of views present among invited bishops and the disproportionate number of bishops from the Global North – this will be viewed as not one of the “areas on which they can agree and thus…make certain affirmations to the Church and the world”. There may then be pressure for this to be an example of where there has to be “bracketing out areas of violent disagreement and so avoiding an unseemly and destructive split” (“Symphony”, 2.4.2, quoted above). It may also be the case that any wording proposed to the bishops will simply seek to give maximal room for manoeuvre in the Church of England’s process of LLF discernment and decision-making in coming months and to enable that process, whatever its outcome, to be presented as part of the CofE’s responses to the “Calls” which are being sought from provinces over the next two years.

Who will make the “Calls”?

Finally, in relation to “Calls” there is the question about their connection to the Conference as a body. One aspect of this is whether all bishops present will be involved in their framing despite the earlier decisions about non-involvement in matters of faith and order where provinces have rejected Communion teaching. If every call talks about scripture and the tradition of the church it would appear that every call falls, to some degree, within this category. Another question is what role if any ecumenical partners present at the Conference will have in relation to this process. A third area lacking clarity at present is in what sense these are the acts of the Conference as a whole since resolutions always have been such in the past even if sometimes the recorded vote has been divided. It has, however, been stated that “It may be that not all bishops will want to add their voices to every element of every call” (p. 6). This suggests that the calls may have named supporters and/or named dissenters either for the whole or for parts rather than expressing the resolve or mind of the Conference as a whole body acting as a corporate Instrument of Communion and episcopal collegiality worldwide. This too will inevitably alter their moral authority and the nature of the Conference as an Instrument of Communion.


Back in 2006, two years before the last Conference, Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote his important “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today: A Reflection for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion”. It remains the case as the next Conference prepares to gather that

What our Communion lacks is a set of adequately developed structures which is able to cope with the diversity of views that will inevitably arise in a world of rapid global communication and huge cultural variety…There is no way in which the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment….we need closer and more visible formal commitments to each other. And it is not going to look exactly like anything we have known so far. 

As noted in the previous article, there remains the danger that this Conference, like that over which Archbishop Rowan presided fourteen years ago, will also fail to gather many of the Communion’s bishops. This reality and some of the possible implications of the move to “Calls” explored here raise the serious question of whether Lambeth 2022 may simply end up highlighting the already fractured nature of the Communion, and, either consciously or unconsciously, move it further away from any “closer and more visible formal commitments to each other”. This is more likely to happen if the Conference fails to address the Communion’s recent history, refuses to consider any consequences for provinces which have rejected Communion teaching, or diminishes the authority of its own pronouncements thereby giving greater significance and weight to provincial autonomy and theological plurality. 

If that is to be avoided, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lambeth 2022 need to find ways of once again providing a vision and creating structures for life together in communion. A vision and structures where the restraints of truth and love shape a pattern of interdependent global Anglican life together, one in which it is clear that churches have autonomy but they are not free to deny the truth and not free to ignore the fellowship. If the Archbishop and the Lambeth Conference cannot start charting such a way forward they will doubtless still play a significant role in the decades ahead but it will be a very different one from that which they have played in the past. It will, it seems, then be left to bodies outside the formal Instruments, such as the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans with their new covenant structure and GAFCON (which meets again in Kigali in April next year) to maintain the historic Anglican vision of deepening life in communion among the majority of Anglicans worldwide, a development which should it arise will in turn inevitably impact our life together here in the Church of England. 

Ultimately, of course, neither bishops (attending or non-attending) nor Archbishops, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, control what will happen at or after this Conference. God will work his purposes out and God will build his church which we must never forget extends far beyond whatever particular Anglican structures or borders we establish or recognise within it. Whatever our analysis, our hopes or our fears, we must therefore above all in coming weeks do what UK evangelicals have recently been urged to do by the Resource Group to Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches/Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (GSFA/EFAC) Delegates at Lambeth 2022 and all Anglicans are encouraged to do on the front page of the Conference website: “Pray for the Lambeth Conference”. 

Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Assistant Minister, St James the Less, Pimlico, Tutor in Christian Ethics, Westminster Theological Centre (WTC) and Tutor in Ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.  He is a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and was a member of the Co-Ordinating Group of LLF.

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