Has the Anglican Church lost its way?
The Anglican Church has always been divided over its stance on homosexuality. Do recent events suggest the Church has lost its way?
From the 26th July to the 2nd August 2022, over 650 Anglican bishops from across the globe gathered in Canterbury, UK for the Lambeth Conference. This international event takes place once every ten years and is an opportunity to “discuss church and world affairs and the global mission of the Anglican Communion for the decade ahead.” In the aftermath of the conference, one thing is clear – the 2022 meeting revealed the ever-growing schisms that have developed between different segments of the global Anglican Church (henceforth referred to as the Church). This article will focus on a particular address that the Archbishop of Canterbury made to bishops and whether the reactions of clergy, church members, and the general public in the UK suggest that the Church has lost its way.
The Lambeth Conference 2022
The first Lambeth Conference took place in 1867 and is one of the four Instruments of Unity in the Anglican Communion. The 2022 meeting marked the 15th Lambeth Conference and its main aim was to “explore what it means for the Anglican Communion to be responsive to the needs of a 21st century world.”
As one of the Instruments of Unity, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addressed Anglican bishops at the conference and “affirmed the validity” of a 1998 Church declaration that gay sex is a sin. Welby said that the declaration, which is known as Lambeth 1.10 and is the church’s official stance on sexuality, was “not in doubt.” He added that “a large majority” of conservative Anglicans agree questioning biblical teaching was “unthinkable” and in many countries, doing so “would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches, to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.”
Following Welby’s address, campaigners for LGBTQ+ equality within the Church have criticised the archbishop’s declaration of affirmation. Jayne Ozanne, a prominent British evangelical Anglican and LGBTQ+ rights campaigner, said “yet again priority has been given to saving a man made institution over protecting LGBTQ+ people’s lives.” Ninety bishops, including eight archbishops, signed a statement saying “many LGBT+ people have historically been wounded by the church” and that they “look forward to the day when we all may feel truly welcomed, valued and affirmed.”
Moreover, outside the Church, public commentators such as broadcaster Sandi Toksvig have strongly criticised Welby’s comments. Toksvig states that suicide is contemplated by young LGBTQ+ people at higher rates than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Due to the archbishop’s words, she wrote that “the lives of LGBTQ+ people are at stake here … Jesus doesn’t mention sexuality at all. It clearly wasn’t a big deal for him.” Therefore, there is clearly concern amongst many within the clergy and wider population about the serious implications Welby’s comments could have on members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place?
For many, some of the frustration and anger they feel is due to the fact that Welby’s address is an example of another occasions where his stance on homosexuality has been inconsistent and unclear. There have been a few occasions where he has shown support for LGBTQ+ rights and criticised those within the Anglican Church who have been offensive towards this community.
For example, in March 2021 Welby denounced the Nigerian archbishop the Most Reverend Henry C Ndukuba for likening homosexuality to a “deadly virus.” His criticism was unequivocal, saying that he “completely disagrees with and condemns this language. It dehumanises those human beings of whom the statement speaks.”
Yet, in a 2017 interview, he claimed that homosexuality is a “moral problem with which he is still wrestling.” Welby said that he was struggling to “be faithful to the tradition, faithful to the scripture, to understand what the call and will of God is in the 21st century and to respond appropriately with an answer for all people.” Therefore, it could be said that for much of his time as archbishop, Welby has been stuck between a rock and a hard place in trying to decide how to position himself on the topic of homosexuality.
What is more important?
However, his address at the 2022 Lambeth Conference seems to be a way to try and pander to the traditional branch of the Church, partly due to the pressure certain bishops placed on Welby. For example, Justin Badi Arama, the archbishop of South Sudan, said that “we are living at a time of great spiritual confusion and moral flux” and therefore Welby must “reaffirm the biblical teaching” of the 1998 declaration. It is important to note how some of the most vocal bishops in support of the 1998 declaration have been from African countries, such as Nigeria, Uganda, and Sudan, with some of the largest Anglican populations in the world. Therefore, in the opinion of his critics,  in order to maintain the status of and support for global Anglicanism, Welby has prioritised the desires of conservative segments of the Church.
This raises the question of what is more important when it comes to the Church and homosexuality. Whose voices are listened to and whose rights are prioritised? Welby, and the Anglican Church more widely, face the real issue of trying to keep the ever-divided Anglican Communion together. Yet, should this take place over the pastoral care of the Church’s LGBTQ+ members?
Moreover, the fallout from Welby’s comments at the 2022 Lambeth Conference also highlights the significant challenge the Church faces to remain relevant in the 21st century. As one reader of The Guardian newspaper expresses, “affirming the validity of the 1998 declaration also affirms the increasing irrelevance of the Church of England in modern Britain … Young people are increasingly inclusive and tolerant of others. They are the ones showing the Anglican church how to be good Christians.”
It remains to be seen whether the Church can reconcile and overcome its deep theological and social schism. But, what is clear is that failure to respect and protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community will continue to put the Church at odds with liberal societies around the world.
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