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Same-Sex Marriage Sparks Divisive Debate at Twice-Delayed Lambeth Conference

By Catherine Pepinster
bishops lambeth
Bishops prepare for a group photo during the 2008 Lambeth Conference at the University of Kent in Canterbury. (Photo by Scott Gunn/ACNS)

Anglican bishops from all over the world began the Lambeth Conference this week amid a furious conflict over same-sex marriage and a scramble by the archbishop of Canterbury and other church leaders to defuse it. 

The conference, meeting for the first time in 14 years, was supposed to be an attempt to bring the Anglican Communion together — to pray, listen and discuss issues that affect the church and the world, such as discipleship, climate change and poverty. More than 650 bishops registered to attend, including more than 100 from the Episcopal Church. They represent some 85 million Anglicans worldwide.

But the documents produced in advance of the conference, which runs through Aug. 8, provoked backlash among those in the liberal wing of the church. Those documents included a reference to the entire Communion being wholly opposed to same-sex marriage.

The protests forced Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to revise the statement and to make a last-minute U-turn on how the talks will be conducted.

According to the original documents, called “Lambeth Calls,” marriage is defined as “between a man and a woman,” and the documents go on to say: “It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same-gender marriage is not permissible.” The documents also stated that “legitimizing or blessing same-sex unions” cannot be advised.

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Bishops and laity in favor of same-sex unions were outraged, among them Bishop John Harvey Taylor of Los Angeles, who said the statement was “the opposite” of healing and reconciliation. “It divides, hurts, scapegoats and denies,” Taylor said. Bishops from the Church in Wales said the call “undermines and subverts the dignity of an integral part of our community, rather than affirming them.”

justin welby
Official portrait of the Rev. Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury. (Photo by Roger Harris/UK Parliament/Creative Commons)

The conflict deepened when Bishop Kevin Robertson of Toronto, who was part of the team that wrote the “Lambeth Call on Human Dignity,” said on Facebook that the wording did not represent anything that the group had produced.

On Tuesday, the Lambeth Conference revised “Lambeth Calls” after Welby met with the group. The revision now says, “Many Provinces continue to affirm that same gender marriage is not permissible.”

It also says: “Other Provinces have blessed and welcomed same sex union/marriage after careful theological reflection and a process of reception. As Bishops we remain committed to listening and walking together to the maximum possible degree, despite our deep disagreement on these issues.”

The document kept a reference to a 24-year-old previous Lambeth Conference resolution that states that the “legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised.

Another revision allows bishops to vote against proposals put forward in the documents. Yet another one allows them to state: “This Call does not speak for me. I do not add my voice to this Call.”

The issue of sexuality and in particular same-sex unions has been splitting Lambeth Conferences for decades, with the divisions so deep that Welby canceled the planned meeting in 2018. Two years earlier, a group of Anglican primates from around the world criticized the Episcopal Church USA for approving same-sex marriages. Since then, the Scottish Episcopal Church has decided to allow same-sex marriage and the Anglican Church in Wales has voted to offer special blessings to same-sex married couples. The Church of England still bans same-sex marriages.

Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said in a statement that “as the old African slaves used to sing, ‘There is plenty good room, plenty good room,’ for all of God’s children. We are all The Episcopal Church, and we will not compromise who we are, our connections, or our love.”

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches at a revival at Harvest Assembly Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 6, 2019. (RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks)

This is the first Lambeth Conference he will attend as presiding bishop.

Socially conservative bishops from Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda are boycotting the conference.

In 2020, the spouses of same-sex couples were banned from attending the conference, which was ultimately canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year, they are allowed to attend but only as observers, not spouses. They can attend meals but are banned from Bible study.

The archbishop of Canterbury told a press briefing that this year’s conference would address the “great challenges that the next 30 or 40 years will impose upon the vast majority of Anglicans, especially those in areas of climate fragility, and of political and other fragility.”

“Without ignoring those things on which we deeply disagree, I pray that we will approach this gathering with an even deeper sense of what unites us: the love of Jesus Christ and his calling to serve God’s world.”

The deliberations of the conference will result in “Lambeth Calls” — declarations and affirmations from the bishops to member churches. The word “resolution” has been dropped to avoid giving the impression that the conference has the power to make legally binding decisions.

In a strongly worded letter, the primates of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda — Archbishop Henry Ndukuba, Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba and Archbishop Laurent Mbanda — said that they were staying home.

“Nothing has really changed about the issues in contention, which broke the fabric of the communion in the first instance. Rather, things are getting worse as the culprits are becoming more daring and persistent in their errors and rebellion,” those theologically conservative primates said.

Julie Roys contributed to this report.

Catherine Pepinster is a contributor to Religion News Service.



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22 thoughts on “Same-Sex Marriage Sparks Divisive Debate at Twice-Delayed Lambeth Conference”

  1. Gay affirming Christians will continue en masse to leave denominations who choose to hold to traditional definitions. There will likely be new denominations formed to accomodate them. This is the way it should be. Trying to make an institution something it has never been for hundreds of years serves no purpose other than forcing ones gay affirming ideas upon others.
    Go and start a new thing and let freedom of religion sort it all out rather than forcing the sewing of new patches on old garments.

  2. In the US, same-sex marriage has not destroyed the institution of marriage for us straights.
    Since 2015, however, professional Christian Jerry Falwell Jr.* pushed a President who is married three times and has cheated on all of his wives.
    Two ladies** going to City Hall to get married and settle down, does not look so bad in comparison.
    *Mr. Falwell apparently believes that marriage is between a man and a woman–and a pool boy.
    **The Old Testament does not condemn sex between women. Just Paul, who opposed all sex outside of marriage.

    1. Gordon Hackman

      It’s not really clear what you think you’ve proved or established with this assemblage of assertions which have no necessary logical relationship to each other.

    2. Main point conceded, for the purposes of a maximally free, secular civil society that truly respects religious freedom and philosophical differences. (A few concerns go with that caveat, though, as I contemplate ontemporary American culture and politics.) Supporting arguments problematized as follows:

      *Regarding Falwell, et al., nice straw men you have there. Not that I’d defend Junior or who he endorsed several years ago; they both disgust me personally and I never thought of either as someone worthy of emulation, much less political or financial support in their respective causes and ambitions. But as a social and political conservative I, too, can think of some bad actors among my philosophical opposites, who have have caused their fellow travelers embarrassment or even significant grief. Schadenfreude is fun, and hypocrisy and fraud look like powerful arguments against ideas we deem bad, until we think it through a little.

      **You argue that the O.T. does not condemn lesbian relationships, only Paul does. Well, I guess we’re cool, then, as long as we throw gay men under the bus along with (for mutually contradictory reasons) the most prolific N.T. author, all while ignoring a few millennia of talmudic, patristic, and other exegetical banter. If we can do all that, while applying a surface-level, ahistorical, wooden, blindly literalist, and selective reading of the text, then your argument from scripture is probably unimpeachable.

      1. Christian Nationalism is a threat to the Constitution that I am fond of, so please forgive my sarcasm.
        I was trying to speak to the literalists–of which I am not. I call Ralph Reed, Falwell, Jr., Dobson & Perkins “professional Christians” because they are political ideologues first and Christians second.
        The Holy Spirit led my (Congregational/UCC) Church to repent of killing witches and eventually turned us against slavery and segregation. It has led many of our Churches to become “Open and Affirming” to LGBTQ people. Our Congregation voted on it, but we told the no votes that we did not want them to leave.

        1. The Holy Spirit did not lead your denomination to become LGBTQ affirming. That would contradict the words of scripture He inspired which clearly establish gender difference as a necessary precondition of sexual relations and which clearly and unequivocally condemn homosexual relations.

          The spirit that lead your denomination to affirm LGBTQ sexuality was the spirit of the age and the spirit whom the scripture refers to as the Father of Lies who asks the question “Did God really say?”

      2. Sarcasm hurts, but sometimes you have to wrap the truth in a bit of humor, to get it past people’s defenses.

      3. I wish Jerry Falwell Jr. was a straw man. He had huge political influence, in making Trump acceptable to conservative Christians.
        In the 2000s in a voting line, in an upper middle class neighborhood, I overheard people say that their Church had given out a list of who to vote for. Shades of the Chicago Machine.
        I brought up women to show the Bible’s inconsistent messages on this.

        1. John Fenner,

          I could not agree more with all your comments on this page. The churches and various denominations are cannibalizing each other and calling it the work of the Evil One. Well, let’s stop helping the Devil do his work and start doing God’s work.

          Christian nationalism, i.e., combining the flag and the cross, or the flag with scripture quotes on it scares me more than anything else going on in the churches today. It is not benign or “values voting”, which is of course is always acceptable. It’s dangerous radicalization and churches that allow it should be abandoned. Stop giving. Stop going. I understand nostalgia for places and people, but your church building or organization should not be made into your idol. Time to wake up and see that our brothers and sisters are not our enemies. We allow The Enemy to seduce us and distract us.

          Our LGBTQ+ sons, neighbors, daughters, pastors, choir directors, teachers and friends are NOT the enemy. If you live in a highly orthodox bubble (in your real world contacts), please know that some people you know and love are not “out” yet. You are “othering” them. We are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Why should they be denied knowing and experiencing this? Take care, Christians, in these debates and tumultuous times lest you be willingly do the Devil’s work for him while he watches and laughs.

          1. Telling people that disordered and sinful sexual desires and behavior don’t have to be repented of is as much denying them knowing and experiencing God’s grace as is refusing to welcome and love them.

      4. Michael Rice,

        Can you please state in briefer, simpler form what your point is?

        John Fenner,

        Trump did not profess to be a believer in his past life. Now that he has, I’m not aware of continued moral failings out of him.

    3. Cynthia Norbeck

      “It divides, hurts, scapegoats and denies,” Taylor said. Yes. The Word of God has always caused anger in those who want to circumvent it in order to live their own lives outside of God’s jurisdiction.

      As Jesus said, the road is narrow and few find it. I pity those who need to redefine what God said about marriage in order to justify their sin. Truly sad!

  3. Actually, the Lord will do a complete job of separating the wheat from the tares. Can two walk together unless they are agreed? Amos 3:3
    Do not be deceived, God is not mocked. 1 John 1:5-7

  4. The Anglican Church is singular in its association with the English Crown. Henry the Eighth made himself the head of that Church in order to circumvent the authority of the Pope; so political expediency central in its origins. This close association of Church and Monarchy extended into the coming about of the; British Empire; so complex global and imperial and colonial politics again in play. The Anglican Church was then exported to the Empire colonies and dominions; as part of the missionary component of Imperialism and Colonialism. Our Queen remains the head of the Anglican Church: she appoints archbishops and bishops, and in this takes advice from the Prime Minister of the day; so again politics is central. The English Church remains the head church.
    All of this is then playing into what we are seeing in this Lambeth Conference. Wales and Scotland easing away from being dominated by England. Conservatism from abroad now in tension with progressivism at home.
    It then isn’t going to be simple to abstract theology from what is going on; other non-theological and historical dynamics being so powerful.
    When language is being used to prevent schism, as here at this conference, authentic address of issues and topics becomes little possible.

  5. You don’t notice right-wingers coming in to take over gay-friendly denominations like the United Church of Christ, PCUSA, or Metropolitan Community Church. The takeovers only happen one way, and yet the Biblical traditionalists are made out to be the bad guy each and every time.

    There are countless churches and denominations that are dedicated to validating LGBT behavior. Why do the activists need to make EVERY single church in the land conform to their viewpoint?

    I thought the gay-liberation movement was about love, freedom of choice, living and let living. What happened? (No, I’m not against LGBTs in general.)

  6. Marin Heiskell

    The church (as a whole, not just the Anglican denomination) has not done a good job of demonstrating, much less teaching, how we are to “love the SINNER, but hate the SIN.” The end result? We have polarizing, “all or nothing” views and attitudes that lack love and grace.
    I am a Christian woman who has friends across the LGBTQ spectrum and community. My friends know my stance on LGBTQ issues and from where I get it in the Bible; they also know I love them undoubtedly and wholeheartedly and will walk through fire with and for them. They know my disagreement with their relationship (or them acting on same sex attraction) is NOT the same as disliking or hating them as people. I also openly acknowledge that the ground is even at the foot of the cross – I may not have the same struggle as them, but my sins aren’t “better” or to be overlooked because they aren’t the “dreaded” sin of homosexuality.
    We need to do a better job of standing on the Word while not looking down on others. Lord knows a quick read through this site exposes we have too many sins in our own backyard to be condescending.

    1. Amen. Many heterosexuals have their own favorite sins, sexual and otherwise, which they routinely practice in secret. On top of that, they practice the sin of hypocrisy by presenting a different public face or persona.

      Many church leaders have done this and so do many in the pews. We don’t tell them not to come to church. They need to hear the Word even more and be in the presence of God’s grace.

      As far as the divisive issue, I have left church congregations due to prizing ethnic nationalism (my parents were immigrants) over the Gospel. I have also left church congregations due to rampant gossip which went unaddressed by leadership and so poisoned and caused a false atmosphere and in my mind, a phony community,

      If anyone prizes the coffee bar / coffee hour, the fact that the pastor has a certain ethnicity you like, or the church building more than serving Christ, it’s time to leave. Some people say stay and be “faithful”. To what and to whom? To continue funding an organization that has constructed its own Golden Calf so you can sit there pointing out that we should not have Golden Calves? No. Shake the dust off your feet and pray, “Lord, what would you have me do? Where may I seek your face?

      Some congregations promote loyalty to the church congregation itself, but the compact is a one-way street coming to a dead end when there is no accountability in the polity of the church.

  7. My good wife and I, and as part of the glue of our human relationship, sustain never-ending discussion about the nature of God. For her, God is a being, a deity, and the Bible is the transcribed word of God. For me the God of the Bible is an evolved idea which is central to a valuable human activity of divination, the resource of which is the Word we humanly author about God. For my wife, we humans are made in the image of God and by God. For me we are made and remade in the image of what God comes to be for us, as we continue with the activity of divining what it is to be human, and the fruit of that activity is held in the Word about God that we commit to. It then seems to me that the current furore about LBTQ+ inclusion, stems from the tension and dynamic inherent in such differing views of the nature of God and the Word we associate with God.
    A shout out to Marin for compassionate and wholesome words on the matter.

  8. Ephesians 5:3-12

    3But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; 

    4Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. 

    5For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

    6Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. 

    7Be not ye therefore partakers with them.

    8For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: 

    9(For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) 

    10Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. 

    11And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. 

    12For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret
    Galatians 4:16
    Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?

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