No-one has ever agreed on what it means to be orthodox, and that’s a good thing. Ever since the resurrection of Jesus, his disciples have been trying to work out what it means to follow him faithfully. As the world changes, the church has to try to discern how it should live and believe in a new context.
I firmly believe that every bishop attending the Lambeth Conference is orthodox. Every single one is trying to discern what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus, and to enable the church to do the same thing.
So what do orthodox bishops do, who are being told by others that they are not? As one who isn’t present (and might not dare to say this if I were), could I make two suggestions?
Firstly, don’t accept the terminology, if you know yourself to be an orthodox Christian believer, say so. Courteously and clearly, don’t let yourself be defined by others. If enough people claim it as an identity it will no longer function as a badge for one part against another.
And secondly, even more difficult, there’s the question of how to respond to those who are declining to receive communion. For a gathering of the Anglican Communion’s bishops not to gather around the Lord’s table makes a mockery of the word ‘Communion’. Just to keep on as if nothing is happening fails to recognise the pain of the division within the Anglican family. So with trepidation, could I suggest that all orthodox bishops – that is, all bishops – refrain from receiving communion? That would be a powerful sign of the pain of our dividedness, one in which we all share, whether we are at Lambeth or not.
It is one of the most reliable techniques in the lexicon of power. If you want to silence your opponent, don’t engage with their position: just pretend it doesn’t exist. State the rules of the game, the terms of the debate, in such a way that the position you oppose has nowhere to stand. It’s a move experienced often enough by women, by people of colour, by almost every group that someone wants to silence.
Churches have not been immune from this kind of behaviour, so it’s good to see the papers for the Lambeth Conference of bishops acknowledging that the “legacies of colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and other abuses of power continue to impact our communities” and “the existence and ongoing impact of an imperialist Anglicanism involved in dehumanizing practices predicated upon cultural and racial supremacy”. On the contrary, they affirm that “[a]ny Christian commitment to human dignity must celebrate the rich diversities of contextual theologies”.
Which makes it all the more shocking that only two paragraphs later the same game is played. “It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same gender marriage is not permissible.” That statement is made on the basis of the infamous Resolution 1:10 passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The problem is that it isn’t true, either in principle or in practice.
The principle is that resolutions of the Lambeth Conference (or Calls, for that matter) express only the majority view of that particular Conference. It is up to each Province to decide what authority they may have: “Member churches have distinct processes for receiving decisions from Lambeth Conferences and deciding/discerning to what extent they will have authority in their context.” Lambeth 1998 1:10 cannot of itself express ‘the mind of the Communion’.
And in practice, it clearly doesn’t. Eight provinces of the Communion have in whole or part begun to make provision for the blessing of same gender relationships. The Church of England is part way through a process which was explicitly designed on the basis of exploring the whole range of views and experiences, openly and without prejudice. Those voices, those people are pre-emptively silenced in this document.
As I’m no longer serving full-time in the church, I won’t be at the Lambeth Conference. I hope that those who are there – whatever their own position on human sexuality – will find a way to reject a document which seeks to silence some by creating an alternative reality in which they do not exist (even though voting ‘no’ doesn’t seem to be an option). That is not the way to seek the truth, or to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ.