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The Lambeth Conference: Changed by Experience

A reflection from Bishop Shannon

At the end of July, my family traveled to Europe—first to France for a vacation, and then to England for the Lambeth Conference, a once-every-decade meeting of bishops from across the Anglican Communion. When our family arrived at Lambeth—Phil as an invited spouse, Anneliese as a Lambeth steward, and me as a bishop—we didn’t know what to expect.

We had been on vacation when the Lambeth Calls arrived in my inbox. I read with dismay the Human Dignity Call that unexpectedly sought the reaffirmation of Lambeth 1.10, a statement of the 1998 Lambeth Conference that denied the belovedness and full inclusion of LGBTQ people and the blessedness of their relationships. As a family, we discussed this gathering storm. We wondered how we should enter this encounter knowing there would be people who bore ill will for people we love. We wondered how to convey the complexity of the situation that was, for us, a new way of experiencing the legacy of imperialism and colonialism that we already know so well at home.

Anneliese MacVean-Brown (far right) and two fellow Lambeth stewards.

On the first day of the Lambeth Conference, some of my fears were eased. I was so happy to see that people with brown skin were in the majority. I rarely experience a situation where my skin doesn’t stand out, and I was glad not to be in the minority. A bishop from an African country greeted me as a friend. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Where are your people from?”

My skin made me part of a powerful majority, but as a woman and as a bishop who is commitment to full inclusion, I was in a decided minority. Although there were many more female bishops at Lambeth this year than in 2008, it is still very difficult for women to become bishops in many provinces of the Anglican Communion. In some of those provinces, women cannot even be priests. And only in a few provinces can openly LGBTQ people even be ordained, much less become bishops. And so, while I rejoiced in the racial diversity present at Lambeth, I grieved the continued exclusion based on gender and sexuality.

But Jesus calls us to include, and that is the perspective I shared with my colleagues in my study group. I talked about the love I’ve seen between same sex partners and how they have provided examples of wholesome and committed relationships which have encouraged me in my marriage. I talked about the importance of people finding our churches to be welcoming and safe, and the church’s need to help ensure that people are physically safe in our communities. I said that I would not know how to exclude people from the sacraments that support us, as followers of Jesus, trying to make our way in this world.

In turn, my study group partners talked about their struggles and experiences in ministry. A bishop from Tanzania talked about lack of food and clean water in his diocese and described the imperialism that had decimated his country. “They gave us guns,” he said, referring to the British colonists. “We fought each other while they stole everything.”

My colleague from South Sudan told me that we would get to full inclusion one day, but that right now, he is concerned with stopping men from having ten wives. Another bishop, from Belize, came to understand that for me, working for LGBTQ equality is about including all of God’s people in the body of Christ. Our conversations were holy ones, and no one tried to convince anyone else. Still, on the final day of the conference, my Tanzanian friend found out that he had lost church funding for theological training. That was his punishment for attending a Lambeth Conference where LGBTQ bishops were included.

Phil MacVean-Brown (second from right) with
his Lambeth Conference study group.

I was always uncomfortable at Lambeth. It was difficult to experience the amount of deference accorded to bishops from the United States because of the economic privilege we have and the extent to which we use it to support the Anglican Communion Office’s budget. It was painful to see the ways that African bishops, whose countries have suffered great injustice and exclusion at the hands of the British, were so determined to exclude LGBTQ people. The refusal of the South Sudanese bishops to take communion disturbed me to my core and brought me to tears. And it was sobering to understand that in all likelihood, we can expect more Anglican division over human sexuality at conferences and meetings in years to come.

Yet in the midst of the political intrigue and politics, I became even more aware that all of us at Lambeth were operating in a structure that exists only because of British colonialism and imperialism. Anglicanism spread around the globe with colonizers and enslavers, and the evils of that history live on today in the way we seek to exclude one another. We learned far too well from our colonizers how to hurt and degrade one another as they hurt and degraded us.

The Anglican Communion is not peaceful or painless, and the Lambeth Conference was a vivid demonstration of that fact. But I know that the conversations I had with my Bible study partners and with other bishops I encountered during our two-week stay made a positive difference. And in turn, they changed my understanding of just how complex the conversation of human dignity and inclusion is across the communion.

It is my prayer that we can stay in these Anglican Communion conversations—most importantly, to bear witness to the belovedness of LGBTQ people and the holiness of their relationships. But I also know that by staying in relationship with Anglicans across the globe, we are rejecting the legacy of colonialism and refusing to play out the imperial pantomimes that too often draw on the worst parts of our shared history to separate us from one another. Those Anglican traditions are not worth keeping, and I pray that we commit ourselves to throwing them off and creating a new, shared Anglican history in which all of God’s children are free.

Top Image: Bishop Shannon with Bishop Lucy Netser of the Anglican Church of Canada, Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe of the Diocese of Central New York, and Bishop Elizabeth Awut Ngor of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan.

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