Since becoming the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013 Justin Welby has been all action and decision. He has needed to be. From his two immediate predecessors he inherited a church that was in perilous organisational disarray and numerical decline. George Carey’s incompetence compounded by Rowan William’s otherworldliness combined to produce just over twenty years of unsatisfactory leadership for the Church of England. For a Church desperate for a steady and competent hand on the tiller Welby arrived just in time.
One of his first actions was to cancel the scheduled Lambeth Conference and put it off to a later date. This was a sensible decision and an early sign of his focus on what matters. In doing so he reversed a key part of the 2001 recommendations made by Douglas Hurd in his review of the work and functions of the See of Canterbury. This had, among other things, recommended the Archbishop should focus more time on the Anglican Communion and leave England to the Archbishop of York. One of the current Archbishop’s more alarming characteristics is that he often seems to show little knowledge of or indeed much interest in the church he leads so it’s quite possible he was not aware of the report at all. In any case it was a damaging recommendation and it was a good sign it was cast aside. Welby wanted to focus on what was pressing domestically and the distraction of the cumbersome global gathering of Anglican Bishops was not at that stage a priority for him. Now, however, the fifteenth Lambeth Conference is only months away and the Archbishop and his team are fully focussed on it. It is a good moment to consider why, if at all, it matters.
Lambeth Conferences are gatherings of all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion roughly every ten years or so. The first one was convened in 1867. The Anglican Communion is essentially, but not wholly, a legacy of the British Empire. In a recent speech Welby spoke convincingly about its legacy and the need for sensitivity when evangelising. In following British Administration as it spread around the world the church replicated one of its own post-Reformation characteristics, devolved decision making. Unlike the Catholic Church whose global reach begins and ends in Rome with a central headquarters, the Anglican Communion is a collection of self-governing independent provinces. As the Queen is Head of the Commonwealth, but exercises no actual executive power, so the Archbishop of Canterbury provides a focus and a centre without actually having any formal control. For the Monarch the Commonwealth provides a global platform, for an Archbishop of Canterbury the Anglican Communion provides a recurring hurdle over which to try and stumble whilst not inflicting too much self-harm.
At Lambeth Palace preparations are well underway. The financing, always a problem, has been sorted out well in advance. There is a coherent programme of activity focussed around the key themes of witness, holiness, hope and prayer. This being a religious gathering there is the reasonable aspiration of “… hope to explore what it is to be God’s people, in God’s world, for God’s world. We are to be key in God’s transformation of the world around us as we listen to Him through Scripture, prayer and each other for the duration of the Lambeth Conference.” If Justin Welby achieves this for the duration of the conference, let alone in the years to come, he will have achieved something. Rowan William’s conference was boycotted by some Bishops, who then went on to set up a rival gathering.
Justin Welby is too canny an operator, too worldly a Primate, not to recognise the pitfalls that confront him. Already a general welcome to Bishops and their spouses ended up in a mini-row about same-sex partnerships. There will be more of this and Lambeth Palace is going to have to up its communications work and resist the temptation to succumb to the more traditional duck and cover approach the church usually adopts when it is confronted with its own mistakes by a generally unfriendly media. At this early stage however the omens bode well for the Archbishop.
Justin Welby’s intention is that “the Conference will set the agenda for the global church for many years to come on a diverse range of issues from climate change to reconciliation. We hope that this will be an opportunity for bishops to take counsel together over their leadership, so that they are fully equipped to lead Anglicans all over the world through the challenges our Church faces in the 21st Century.” It is ambitious stuff. Compared to the Catholic and Orthodox churches the Anglican Communion is small, but it does have a global footprint. The fact that an Archbishop of Canterbury can invite a large group of like-minded colleagues from around the world to come and spend time under his chairmanship is a remarkable display of convening power.
What Justin Welby is trying to do matters, at home and around the world. At its heart he is not trying fashion a simple coherent approach and impose it on his fellow Primates. What he is trying to do at the Lambeth Conference is what he is trying to do with the Church at home – encourage it to pray, to come together in compassion and to focus on what is shared and not obsess over what divides. The 2020 Lambeth Conference is the biggest example yet of Justin Welby’s intense desire to seek and to support reconciliation.