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Meeting ‘to prevent inconveniences’

16 July 2008

The issues to be tackled at Lambeth 2008 are just the latest in a long line since 1867. David L. Edwards looks back at the history of the Lambeth Conference

Start of it all: Archbishop Longley (seated, centre) at the first Lambeth Conference in 1867

Start of it all: Archbishop Longley (seated, centre) at the first Lambeth Conference in 1867

THE INVENTION of the steamship made it possible to cross the Atlantic in reasonable time and comfort. The invention of the Lambeth Conference 141 years ago made it possible for the bishops of the United Church of England and Ireland in Canada to let off steam in the London palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

They had become alarmed by the rulings of the judicial committee of the Privy Council, which had (it seemed to them) protected heresy in the persons of the Bishop of Natal and the contributors to a book called Essays and Reviews.

Bishop Colenso had been asked by the Zulus, among whom he was a missionary, whether some stories in the Old Testament were not somewhat like their own tribal myths; and, as a Cambridge mathematician, he had felt bound to say yes. The essayists had asked themselves whether the Bible might not be studied like any other book, up to a point.

The Canadian bishops were fundamentalists, as were most other Christians in the 1860s, and they were indignant that clergy holding such views could keep their jobs. They wanted a meeting, and thought that it might be a council or synod with authority, even a spiritual tribunal.

“The meeting of such a synod as you propose is by no means foreign to my feeling,” Archbishop Longley replied, “and I think it might tend to prevent these inconveniences, the possibility of which you anticipate.”

But his future successor, Tait, led the opposition within the Conference to any idea that its authority might be more than advisory; the Archbishop of York was not among the 76 bishops who assembled; and the Dean of Westminster did not permit the use of the Abbey. The “Address to the Faithful” reassured them: “Hold fast, as the sure word of God, all the canonical scriptures.”

The liberals of the day got away with it, however; and when doctrinal problems were allowed to surface in 1888, the bishops urged “cautious and industrious treatment” rather than heresy hunt. Seventy years later they adopted a magisterially sensible statement about the Bible’s authority, drafted by Michael Ramsey.

The Lambeth Conferences have produced some other theological documents in the first class, including expositions of doctrine about God (1930) and Man (1948). But the conditions in which these Anglican bishops have met each other have been very different from those of the Second Vatican Council: no non-episcopal theologians or observers from other Churches were present before 1978 (when enlarged numbers meant a move out of Lambeth Palace); there was not time for thoughts to mature much; there was no general sense of speaking on behalf of an infallible Church.

The inevitable result has been that the assembly has been surrounded by some excitement, but its dispersal has not often been followed by immortality for the statements: such is the fate of almost all conferences.

The main value has been in the meeting itself. Hensley Henson noted privately that his fellow bishops in 1920 were “not (with few exceptions) either learned or men of marked intellectual powers”; but his acid pen went on to record that they were “intensely earnest . . . devoted to their work . . . with an immense variety of experience, endeavour and circumstance”.

Experiences have been exchanged as friendships were formed, and endeavours have been strengthened as visions were raised and widened. The Conferences have fully justified the considerable expenditure of effort and money; and their value has increased as bishops’ spouses have been given a welcome.

Each Conference has been the occasion for a survey of the world and the Church of the time, however superficial had to be the touching on many subjects. Some of the observations now seem to be period pieces: and perhaps not many people ever read all the 446 pages of History of the Lambeth Conferences, published as early as 1920, or can remember all the resolutions collected in a volume of 1992. But it has surely been right to show awareness of contemporary problems. Would that all bishops’ councils in the past had had their feet on the earth!

SOME of the problems have more or less defeated the bishops, very understandably. In 1930, it was agreed that “war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ;” yet no Conference has corporately embraced pacifism, or even nuclear pacifism. But the bishops have gone on hoping, as they did when they declared that “men’s minds are more and more set towards the spiritual” — six years before the First World War.

Sometimes moral teaching has been clarified or changed in ways that can be understood by the public. The classic example is provided by contraceptives. In 1908, these were thought to produce “nervous enfeeblement”, possibly even “insanity”. In 1920, they were “incentives to vice”. But in 1930 their use became a matter for each couple to decide for themselves, “as in the sight of God”. The bishops who said that officially were saying something that, at that date, was bold.

Sometimes, Christian morality has been upheld in some tension with the powers that be, to whom, as history shows, bishops can be attracted. It is impressive to see how consistent has been the denunciation of racism, even in the days when the British Empire was at its height; and (partly for this reason) the bishops could record with satisfaction “the extent, the power and the influence of the great Anglican Communion” (in 1888).

Sometimes, Christian morality has been upheld in some tension with the powers that be, to whom, as history shows, bishops can be attracted. It is impressive to see how consistent has been the denunciation of racism, even in the days when the British Empire was at its height; and (partly for this reason) the bishops could record with satisfaction “the extent, the power and the influence of the great Anglican Communion” (in 1888).

For obviously good reasons, much attention has been paid to difficult questions about the internal organisation and the ecumenical role of the Communion itself, now global. As the Canadians had to be told in 1867 that no Lambeth Conference could silence the liberals in the C of E, so there could be no English prohibition of the ordination of women as priests and bishops after initiatives taken in North America.

As a balance to their display of diversity (they were divided over the Church of South India’s reunion long before they were divided over the ordination of women), they have set an example in praying and living together; and the best thing they have ever done was their “Appeal to All Christian People” for the unity of a Bible-based and reality-big Catholic Church in 1920.

  Both the 1978 and the 1988 Conferences showed the great value of having more time for prayer, Bible study, and human fellowship by meeting in the University of Kent at Canterbury, instead of having to travel to and from somewhat parliamentary proceedings in the centre of London. Both Conferences had to deal with the deep division caused by the actions of some Anglican provinces in admitting women to the priesthood.

Neither Conference could look to the Church of England for confident leadership, although the rather different personalities of Lords Coggan and Runcie had a certain unifying influence. Neither Conference could rely on preparatory documents of the quality that had been among the resources in 1958 and 1968.

Yet both Conferences were successful where it mattered most: they were three-week sessions with a definitely Christian spiritual dimension, and were in that sense “retreats” for leaders tired by their often difficult jobs; and they incarnated the “Communion”, which they affirmed as continuing despite the differences in conscientious conviction.

WHAT HAPPENED at the 1998 conference was not a mere happening that could have been avoided had there been more foresight in the planning and leadership, or more courteous restraint in speeches. It was the occasion when the deep contrasts between two types of Anglicanism were first dramatised and experienced with an impact that could not be smoothed over, as when a clash between tectonic plates sends up shocks which make an earthquake unavoidable.

Much of the Conference was a great success, unifying and inspiring. It was a Conference marked by increasing prominence of the concerns of Christians in the Two-Thirds World. More than 750 bishops and 650 spouses spoke to each other about their problems and their faith, and for most of the time the emphasis was firmly on causes undeniably good: world poverty can be relieved by the cancellation of debts, youth can be reached by enthusiasm and imagination, etc. Many events were spiritually impressive and encouraging. The Conference made a profit.

But the issue of homosexuality could not be avoided. Nor could the outcome have been arranged so as to avoid bitterness.

A section of the Conference thought hard and recommended further study and dialogue, but when its report was brought to a plenary session it was inevitable that the conservative leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury (George Carey) should be accepted: “I have long been persuaded that the entire Bible and Christian tradition gives us no permission to condone sexual practices of any sort outside . . . holy matrimony.” There were 526 bishops who voted for that; 70 voted against; and 45 abstained.

The bishops who could not be satisfied by the simple declaration that homosexual practice, being “incompatible with scripture”, is sinful represented a minority of Anglicans which could not be ignored, being British, North American, and wider; and the Conference had no time in which to begin serious theology about the consequences of this division for the Communion. A very thoughtful document about Anglican identity (the Virginia report, 1997) could have been debated, but was not.

At the time, the bishops, in the majority, enjoyed the Conference — for example, the day out for lunch in the garden of Lambeth Palace, tea in the garden of Buckingham Palace, and a cruise down the historic Thames; but loyalty to the faith as preached by missionaries (especially those sent by the CMS) took precedence over respectful tourism.

Inevitably, the 1998 Conference in Canterbury was to be regarded as a prelude to Jerusalem in 2008, and at present it seems that never again will there be a Conference equally entitled to be called a gathering of the leadership of the Anglican Communion.

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