Bishops Andrew Asbil, Riscylla Shaw and Kevin Robertson of the Diocese of Toronto shared their thoughts on the 15th Lambeth Conference during an online conversation on Sept. 22. Suzanne Lawson, ODT, was the host and asked questions. The following are extracts from the conversation and have been edited for length. For the full dialogue, visit the diocese’s Facebook page or YouTube channel. The Lambeth Conference is an international meeting of Anglican bishops to discuss church and world affairs and the global mission of the Anglican Communion for the decade ahead. This year’s conference was held July 26 to Aug. 8 in England and its theme was “God’s Church for God’s World – walking, listening and witnessing together.”
Suzanne Lawson: What is Lambeth’s purpose as you experienced it?
Bishop Robertson: We had a very full agenda with the Lambeth Calls and bible studies and worship, but if we pushed all that aside and all we did was spend 12 days getting to know each other, building relationships and praying together, that alone would be a good use of our time. I walked away from the conference thinking that the relationships that were built or deepened were worth their weight in gold. That was the essence of the conference for me – being in relationship.
Bishop Shaw: It was about the Communion coming together in unity. We were missing Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda, but they were spoken of fondly and prayed for. Being at Lambeth was about unity for me, about being able to see across the globe the notion that we share in solidarity our sense of call and responding to the call and our faithfulness to the call. It was also quite a lot about worship, of being able to experience Christ through music from different parts of the world and worshipping side by side with people who speak different languages. It was a very powerful experience. Being able to sit with people from across the globe or who are near and dear to us was a really good experience.
Bishop Asbil: It’s a little like going to frosh week at university and living the university life. You’re living in very intense community and you’re meeting people constantly. There is such a rich diversity of culture and language and people, all dressed beautifully, differently, casually and formally. And a real sense of graciousness as you meet one another.
Suzanne Lawson: What was the most challenging thing you learned anew?
Bishop Asbil: I think one of the most challenging things that we experienced from time to time, especially when we gathered for the Eucharist, was that there were some among us who would not receive. That was particularly painful – to know that there were some among us who felt they could not receive the communion. And it’s a reminder to Anglicans of the whole body that we have healing and work to do in forming communion in a deeper way, and that we are broken and need God’s love and salvation. We can’t do this work on our own, it’s not something we can manufacture on our own, but we need God’s grace to help us sew accord rather than discord.
Bishop Robertson: I remember the first day of the conference, the global south group of bishops had a press conference with a document, and it clearly said that they were not going to receive communion with bishops who were there in same-sex marriages. For the first time, among 650 people, the seven of us who were there in same-sex marriages felt really conspicuous. We had lots of support, not only from within the Canadian and American houses but also from bishops from around the world. But it was a painful reminder. There was a veneer of civility and we’re all going to get together for 12 days, but at other moments it was clear there were people who were not interested in gathering around the table together. But I want to add that there were encouragements as well. A few years ago, in 2019, I went to the course for new bishops in Canterbury. It is for bishops from around the world, and I made some friendships with bishops from Africa and Asia. Those were some of the people who came up to me at the Lambeth Conference three years later and put their arm around me and said, “We stand with you.” That speaks to the enduring nature of these relationships.
Bishop Shaw: One of the challenges was that our Archbishop, Linda Nicholls, was the only woman Primate. That’s a deep challenge to the rest of the globe. When I was there, I wore my collar every day, because when I was walking with Jana (her spouse), he got mistaken for the bishop in the family. It’s still an automatic to assume the man is the bishop. That’s a challenge. Another piece was that Archbishop Justin Welby said that shepherds must practice humility because we are also sheep. I was reminded of that, both in my own behaviour and in a sense of who do we want to portray ourselves as? What is our identity as leaders in the diocese and the Communion? Who are we? We are sheep, so let’s remember that.
Suzanne Lawson: What was one of the big worship services that impressed you?
Bishop Shaw: Bishop Vicentia preaching at the opening service and having Archbishop Linda (Nicholls) help to celebrate at the closing service. That was a memorable time for me. (Bishop Vicentia Refiloe Kgabe, Bishop of Lesotho, was the first woman in history to preach at a Lambeth Conference.)
Bishop Asbil: Experiencing Linda (Nicholls) celebrating at the closing worship was really rich. That was profoundly moving for me. Also, the very first hymn we sang together, “The Church’s One Foundation.” To hear the thunderous voices of 650 bishops from around the world in different languages, with spouses, clergy and laity, was really profound.
Bishop Robertson: For me, it was the music – it was so amazing. The planners of the liturgies, especially the opening and closing services, really did a great job of incorporating as many different voices, sounds and tempos. The diversity and all of us together in one place – it was magical.
Suzanne Lawson: What is the expense of Lambeth and is it worth it at a time when there could be other calls on our financial resources?
Bishop Asbil: It is a privilege and an honour for us to attend, and all three of us express our deep gratitude to the diocese for sending us. The cost is about $10,000 per person. What’s important to remember is that the Canadian church also donates to the worldwide Anglican Communion to send bishops from around the world who are not able to afford it, including a number of Canadian bishops. The Compass Rose society, of which we have a Canadian chapter, gives about $500,000 to send bishops.
Is it worth it? I think it is. The ability to gather with many bishops from around the world, face to face, to be able to be in conversation, in prayer, in worship, to be the Body of Christ, to come apart from our own contexts, to be in a strange place all of us together, and to be linked as a body, is priceless. It’s 12 days that will continue to feed my ministry and our collective ministries in our diocese and beyond. The friendships that get built and woven together over time help us understand our contexts. We are not an island in North America. We are not separated from each other because we happen to be in Canada. We are deeply woven together as a people of the earth, and if there was ever a time when we needed to know that even more keenly, it is right now.
Suzanne Lawson: Give us a nugget of wisdom that you brought home and will act on.
Bishop Asbil: Very simply, we are better together.
Bishop Shaw: Communication – reaching out to one another – is key.
Bishop Robertson: Ours is a gospel of reconciliation – the theme of reconciliation there and bringing that home to our own context, in all kinds of different ways; that’s a nugget I will bring into my own ministry.
Suzanne Lawson: Do you have a picture or an image that you can leave with us that helps us feel that we were almost there?
Bishop Shaw: For me, from Amos, chapter 8, a basket of summer fruit. It was hot, it was sweet, we were all different but we were all together.
Bishop Asbil: The picture of all the women bishops together was powerful, to see the shift from a small gathering in 2008 to almost 100 in 2022. I found that profound. I bought a picture for the Diocesan Centre and it will get framed and put in one of our meeting groups.
Bishop Robertson: Fourteen years ago, the only openly gay partnered bishop was not even invited to the conference. On the last day of this conference, eight of us who are out, partnered and part of the LGBTQ+ community were standing in a formal picture. That was wonderful and I pray that, like the number of women bishops, that will increase.