The Guardian view on the Lambeth conference: don’t make it about sexuality | Editorial

A toxic draft text on same-sex unions has needlessly reopened old wounds

The staging of the twice-delayed Lambeth conference, which this week sees bishops from the Anglican communion assemble in Canterbury for the first time since 2008, should be a cause for celebration. Postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic, it offers representatives from more than 40 national churches around the world the chance to reconnect in person. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has expressed the hope that it will be an occasion for fruitful dialogue, as Anglicans negotiate the challenges of creating “a postcolonial model” for a communion created in the era of empire.

Sadly, such admirable aspirations risk being undermined by more divisive debate on sexuality and the status of same-sex unions. Among a series of draft texts distributed last week to the 650 attending bishops and archbishops, one called for the reaffirmation of an infamously divisive resolution from the Lambeth conference of 1998. This flatly rejected homosexual practice as “incompatible with scripture”, and fuelled years of acrimony and culture wars, leaving gay and lesbian Anglicans feeling marginalised, betrayed and excluded. The draft text also asked bishops to back the proposition that “it is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same-gender marriage is not permissible”.

The feeling of deja vu is deeply depressing. In 2018, when this conference was originally due to take place, Mr Welby cancelled it on the grounds that levels of internal division were such that it might do more harm than good. In a sensible attempt to avoid the toxicity of previous debates, he has decreed that, for the first time, no traditional “resolutions” will be passed during the coming discussions. Since each national church can ignore or adopt Lambeth pronouncements as it sees fit, this was an eminently pragmatic approach designed to defuse tensions. The conciliatory approach even led to suggestions that this would be the “Kumbaya” Lambeth conference. But it appears that arch-conservatives found a way to try to inject some all-too-familiar toxicity into proceedings.

At the weekend, bishops from the Church in Wales – which last year introduced church blessings for same-sex couples – issued a furious statement, condemning the draft text as an attempt to “undermine and subvert” the dignity of LGBT+ people. The bishops of Los Angeles and Toronto have also weighed in, and senior Anglicans have called on Church of England bishops to throw out the text in its current form. Among liberals in the church, there is a sense of having been blindsided by some behind-the-scenes politicking of the most cynical kind.

It is in the interests of all concerned that this fraught debate is not resumed on such crude and polarising terms. Not least on the grounds that the consensus asserted by the draft text palpably does not exist. On LGBT+ rights, there remains a gulf between the views of conservative hierarchies in the global south, their allies in the west, and the liberal wing of the Anglican church. It is to be hoped that delegates at this week’s 15th Lambeth conference learn from bitter experience, give culture wars a wide berth, and seek out common ground on which genuine agreement may be possible.

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