[Episcopal News Service] Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is not inviting same-sex spouses to the 2020 Lambeth Conference of bishops.
Public word of Welby’s decision came in an Anglican Communion News Service blog post by Anglican Communion Secretary General Josiah Idowu-Fearon. He wrote that “invitations have been sent to every active bishop” because “that is how it should be – we are recognizing that all those consecrated into the office of bishop should be able to attend.” Those invitations traditionally come from the archbishop of Canterbury.
“But the invitation process has also needed to take account of the Anglican Communion’s position on marriage which is that it is the lifelong union of a man and a woman,” Idowu-Fearon wrote. “That is the position as set out in Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Given this, it would be inappropriate for same-sex spouses to be invited to the conference.”
Idowu-Fearon said that the archbishop of Canterbury “has had a series of private conversations by phone or by exchanges of letter with the few individuals to whom this applies.”
Resolution 1.10 was passed by the conference in 1998 after heated debate.
The Episcopal Church currently has one actively serving bishop who has a same-sex spouse. The Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool was elected as bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Los Angeles in December 2009 and consecrated May 2010. She has been bishop assistant in the Diocese of New York since April 2016. She is married to Becki Sander, her partner of more than 30 years.
Glasspool told Episcopal News Service Feb. 18 in a telephone interview that she received a letter from Welby on Dec. 4, 2018, in which he said that he was writing to her “directly as I feel I owe you an explanation of my decision not to invite your spouse to the Lambeth Conference, a decision that I am well aware will cause you pain, which I regret deeply.”
Welby met with Glasspool and Sander in September when he visited Trinity Wall Street. She called it a get-acquainted session, which did not touch on the Lambeth Conference.
Glasspool said she and Sander, New York Bishop Andy Dietsche and New York Bishop Suffragan Allen Shin “have been praying about this and talking about this” since receiving the letter. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry also met with Glasspool and Sander to discuss Welby’s letter. “One of my takeaways was how can we make a positive, creative, responsive witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord,” she said about how they and the church should respond to his decision.
Curry was in South Africa Feb. 18 and issued a short statement saying, “I have not yet had an opportunity to consult with appropriate leadership in the church but will do so.”
Both Glasspool and Sander replied to Welby in separate letters later in December. Glasspool said her two-page letter to Welby, parts of which she read to ENS, told him about her 30-year experience in The Episcopal Church “and where the church has come,” and evoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, especially his emphasis on just and unjust laws.
“When will the church accept to it the gift of the LGBTQ community?” she asked Welby. “Young people are watching us. If they haven’t written off all of Christianity for being homophobic, they do find The Episcopal Church inviting and inclusive.”
She told the archbishop, “The important thing I want to say is it’s about love. I am talking about people who love one another and look to the church to support them in their life-long marriage where the values of faithfulness, respect, dignity, truth-telling, monogamy and the love that is our loving God’s gift to all of us are upheld.
“After a lifetime of discussion, I am relatively confident that The Episcopal Church will never again turn its back on the LGBTQ community. Will the same be said of Lambeth 2020?”
Glasspool told ENS that Sander noted in their conversation about Welby’s decision that it seems to be based in part on an apparent assumption that “spouses are simply an extension of the bishop to whom they are married, and that somehow there is a view of marriage that doesn’t quite sit well with an egalitarian or reciprocal or a mutual partnership” model.
The bishop said that she expects to attend Lambeth 2020, and she has asked Sander to come with her for support. “The issue is will she be included in the conversation,” Glasspool said.
Glasspool said she plans to “consult, as much as people are willing” at the House of Bishops previously scheduled meeting March 12-15, 2019, at Kanuga outside Hendersonville, North Carolina. “Not with the expectation that we are all of one mind, but because I do not wish to respond only as an individual, but rather with a sensitivity to the body as a whole,” she said.
Prior to the House of Bishops meeting in March, the church’s Executive Council, composed of bishops, clergy and laity, begins its winter meeting Feb. 21 in Midwest City, Oklahoma.
The Rev. Thomas Brown is due to be ordained and consecrated on June 22 as the next bishop of the Diocese of Maine. He is married to the Rev. Thomas Mousin. The diocese elected Brown on Feb. 9. His election is about to enter the consent process canonically required in all bishop elections. A majority of diocesan standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction must sign off on each election.
Brown told ENS that he would not comment about the Lambeth Conference decision because of his pending consent process.
Diocese of Toronto Bishop Suffragan Kevin Robertson married Mohan Sharma on Dec. 28, 2018. The diocese congratulated him on his marriage, which was attended by Toronto Archbishop Colin Johnson and Toronto Bishop Diocesan Andrew Asbil.
Robertson said in a telephone interview with ENS Feb. 18 that Welby told him in person that Sharma would not be invited. Robertson was at Lambeth Palace, Welby’s official London residence, on Feb. 7 as part of an annual 10-day new-bishop orientation run by Canterbury Cathedral when he was summoned to Welby’s office. The conversation occurred two days before Brown’s election in Maine.
“He said to me there are only two of you in the communion in this situation, you and Mary, and he said if I invite your spouses to the Lambeth Conference, there won’t be a Lambeth Conference,” Robertson said.
Welby, Robertson said, seemed to be “willing to move beyond what happened in 2008 when Gene Robinson was not invited. He was willing to invite me and Mary, but that it was too much of a step to invite our spouses as well.”
Their conversation came on the same day that Nigerian Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, the primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria and the chairman of the Global Anglican Future Conference, or GAFCON, issued a “warning” saying that he expected that Robertson “and his partner will be attending [Lambeth] and received in good standing.”
Okoh said, “With great sadness we therefore have to conclude that the Lambeth Conference of 2020 will itself be an obstacle to the gospel by embracing teaching and a pattern of life which are profoundly at odds with the biblical witness and the apostolic Christianity through the ages.”
Robertson said the refusal to invite his and Glasspool’s spouses is “hurtful.” He said he and Sharma, who have two children, have been together for 10 years.
“I actually find it quite offensive. I know that’s a strong word, but I’m aware the Anglican Communion is not of one mind around marriage,” he said. “However, the decision to invite all the other spouses without inviting ours, I think, sends a very clear message about the way that same-sex relationships are regarded in the communion. I think that’s a troubling sign.”
Robertson said his first instinct was not to go with Lambeth without his spouse. While he has not made a final decision, he said that, at the moment, he thinks it’s important for all of the bishops who will find themselves in this position to go so that their voices are at the table.
During his time with the 29 bishops who were part the orientation in Canterbury, Robertson said some of them discussed Okoh’s letter. While they all did not agree, those conversations “reminded me that it’s so important to be in conversation; it’s so important to being in the process of building relationships, that that is only way we are going to get through this,” Robertson said.
“Frankly, it’s why I am so disappointed about the spouses not being invited. If we’re going to get through this, it will be because people come to know bishops in same-sex relationships and realize that we’re people too. It’s not by keeping people away. I think that’s the worst thing to do.”
The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada is scheduled to vote in July 2019 on changing its marriage canon to allow same-sex marriage.
The Lambeth Conference is a periodic gathering of bishops from across the Anglican Communion, which the archbishop of Canterbury calls and issues invitations for. The last gathering was in 2008. The July 23-Aug 2, 2020, gathering will be held, as is tradition, in Canterbury, England, with most of the sessions at the University of Kent.
Spouses have typically participated in a parallel program. However, in 2020, there will be a joint program for the first time. Spouses of bishops will attend combined sessions “at key points in the overall program,” according to information here. There will also be separate sessions on the specific responsibilities of the ministry for bishops and spouses, according to the Lambeth website. The conference’s website features a photo of Welby and his wife, Caroline. The page was recently changed to add a link to Idowu-Fearon’s blog. It now reads, “The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is sending personal invitations to every eligible bishop and spouse (excluding same-sex spouses) and is looking forward immensely to hosting them.”
Idowu-Fearon’s statement that “all those consecrated into the office of bishop should be able to attend” the Lambeth gathering might be seen as a certain amount of movement beyond the most-recent previous Lambeth Conference. In 2008 then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams refused to invite Bishop Gene Robinson, who had become the first openly gay and partnered bishop in the Anglican Communion in 2003. He served as bishop of New Hampshire until his retirement in January 2013. He and his then-partner of 25 years, Mark Andrew, were joined in a civil union in 2008 and married in 2010. They divorced in 2014.
At the House of Bishops meeting in March 2008, three bishops whom then-Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori asked to discuss Robinson’s then-still-pending invitation reported that “a full invitation is not possible.”
Robinson urged his colleagues not to boycott the conference because of his exclusion. Instead, addressing the House of Bishops, he urged them to participate fully in it, and thanked all who were willing to “stay at the table.”
At the end of that meeting, the bishops said in part, “Even though we did not all support the consecration of the Bishop of New Hampshire, we acknowledge that he is a canonically elected and consecrated bishop in this church. We regret that he alone among bishops ministering within the territorial boundaries of their dioceses and provinces, did not receive an invitation to attend the Lambeth Conference.”
Some other bishops from across the more than 165 countries in which the Anglican Communion is present refused to attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference due to theological disagreements with the main body of the church about the full inclusion of LGBTQ people and women in the life of the church.
Robinson went to the gathering in what he called an act of witness. Organizers permitted him to be in the Lambeth Marketplace, the conference’s display and sales area, an invitation he initially refused. He was also allowed to attend two receptions hosted by Episcopal Church bishops that were specifically intended to allow him to meet colleagues from around the world. He was invited to worship and speak at several other venues in the Canterbury area, including the University of Kent’s law school.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that then-Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold asked a small group of bishops to speak to the archbishop of Canterbury about Bishop Gene Robinson’s invitation. It was then-Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.