Home from Canterbury and the fields are biscuit brown: every green reach of downland now a bristly, sea-less strand. Approaching from Salisbury Plain, hay bales stacked high-rise for collection, there’s a smoky plume spreading ominously over what I reckon to be our village (just past it, thankfully, but still ruinous to the barley harvest on Fyfield Down). All is dry as kindling – on land as online, where incendiary posts about the Lambeth Conference have torn about like Samson’s foxes, burning up the shocks.
Debate was already ablaze as we arrived on campus, taking cover behind the firewall of collegiality. A peculiar congregation, to put it mildly – this beaming invasion of Roman purple, with which (I had to keep reminding myself) I was not only associated but bound in communion. Having always been more at ease in the church porch than the vestry, where to position myself here? It wasn’t just the impossible heat that held me back from wearing my collar and cross for the first few days: like many others, I suspect, I was also clinging on to an evaporating sense of self.
In honesty, I’ve always kept global Anglicanism at a distance. Such has been my calling to the English Church, and a vision of neighbour-and-nationhood that ripples out from local community, that my global sympathies have often been woefully remote. It’s the principal weakness of parochialism when it outweighs catholicity. So, to gather over a thousand of us from Equatoria to the Arctic as a kind of pop-up parish was extraordinary for a localist like me: a physical expression of what I have affirmed but never truly felt in a universal sense – that in Christ, we who are many are one body. In the best way, the conference put me in my place. I came away feeling converted to the world.
When giving talks about the church as ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’, I have often homed in on the double meaning of ‘one’ as expressing both the singular (one street, one blackbird) and the collective (one nation, of one mind) and this is what interests me now, in my late-found love for the worldwide church. My concern is the impact of liberalism on ecclesiology, such that it is all too easy for bishops to mistake internationalism for catholicity. Whereas the latter holds particular and universal in creative tension, the former likes to spread over us a counterpane of sameness: the smother church. Remarkably, almost imperceptibly, this Lambeth Conference concluded with the acknowledgement of greater difference being possible among our provinces because, not in spite, of our common confession. The test will be practise, but after Archbishop Justin’s heartfelt call for plurality-in-unity, many present heard something like the low rumble of tectonic plates.
There was much discussion about the ‘Instruments’ of Communion (the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council) and how these might be reformed, but – as a London colleague and I agreed – what really unifies us is a shared missionary narrative that washed ashore on the Kent coast just as it had done in Rome. Awkwardly mindful of colonial overtones – of the Communion being a kind of ecclesiastical Commonwealth – I apologetically tried to express this in one session, to which an Indian bishop on our table said with a grin: ‘it’s ok, we know that the Gospel didn’t come from England’. For this reason, we must both own the Englishness of Anglicanism while simultaneously releasing the Communion from it, so that others decide what to do with that legacy. Which is precisely why I believe it would be mistaken for the role of Archbishop of Canterbury (really the lead ‘instrument’) to become an increasingly global appointment, unless this is somehow untethered from its peculiar place in the English constitution. Leadership of the Communion must surely be shared among the provinces in a new way, but each church must (as Magna Carta put it) remain free, with its liberties unimpaired.
This will be vital, whatever course the Church of England takes about marriage and sexuality (which subject delegates spent less than an hour discussing directly but was nevertheless an element in every room), simply because it will – already is – different from that of other provinces. Yet here also there was surprising grace. My small group (with whom I met each day) contained, among others, two South Sudanese, a Filipino and an American Episcopalian whose husband, along with other spouses of LGBT+ bishops, was only admitted to some parts of the programme. That all eight of us could embrace in prayer on departure was both moving and profoundly hopeful.
During these weeks I have felt renewed appreciation and admiration for lesbian and gay colleagues in the Church of England – who have ever been at its centre yet continue to suffer the grudging acceptance that straight gatekeepers like me have too often offered, as if the kingdom belonged to us. Or, worse still, have had to bear the holiness of their heart’s affections being bulleted and scrutinised like clauses in some joyless contract. As I prepare to attend this weekend my wonderful niece’s wedding to her soon-to-be wife, I’m reminded how, early in the conference, we were commended to reflect on a Zulu greeting: sawubona – which means, literally, ‘I see you; I recognise you: you are known and valuable’. If the hope of heaven is that we shall know fully, even as we are fully known, what would it mean for our dear sisters and brothers truly and gladly to be beheld: not merely in part, but in their love? That is what will remain of us, after all.
It was when we moved en masse that the episcopacy looked most enjoyably outlandish: spilling like weak Ribena from buses or boarding the small fleet of pleasure boats that carried us one day from Lambeth Bridge to Greenwich. Queuing for our vessel by the Thames and finding myself with a clutch of sunny Lutherans, present as ecumenical guests, I related my favourite of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, in which a party of Lutheran pastors boards a pontoon boat that eventually sinks in a shallow river:
‘As the boat sank, they slipped over the edge to give their lives to Christ, but in only five feet of water. It’s been a hot dry summer. They didn’t dare walk … and they couldn’t call for help because their voices were too deep and mellow. So they stood, faces upturned, in prayerful apprehension. Twenty-four ministers standing up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.’
It’s a picture that has buoyed me up at many a clergy gathering and was a useful metaphor here, on approaching those waters we fear may be too deep. The fifteenth Lambeth Conference didn’t sink, thank goodness: it may even have learnt some new strokes to swim with.