Leader: The story of Lambeth ’08

by
06 August 2008

IT IS TROUBLING that, five days after the close of the Lambeth Conference, many people are asking: what did the bishops do? We suspect that some bishops fall into this group, and not just those who stayed away. Part of the rea­son for the uncertainty is that the bishops did many things. We hope that our digest of the long Reflections document will help readers to pick out the most im­portant of these.

They did talk about sexuality. They did talk about the threat of schism and the means of heading it off. The two-and-a-half weeks in Canterbury were not an avoid­ance exercise; for it was known beforehand that the Conference by itself had no authority to resolve the crisis over homo­sexuality, even had the GAFCON bishops been present. For this reason, the Archbishop of Can­ter­bury and his team devised a programme that emphasised conversation rather than resolu­tion.

We have no quibble with the Lambeth Con­ference conceived as a means of enlarging bishops’ vision and enabling them to serve their dioceses better. We should not mind, even, if in 2018 the Archbishop (it might be Dr Williams: he would be only 68) clears the programme completely of meetings and turns the whole thing into a bishops’ holiday — just so long as the Conference has no executive function.

The Anglican Communion is an episcopal body, but not exclu­sively. Much has been said of Angli­can “gifts” in recent days. One is the strong sense of the equality of all lay and ordained members of the body of Christ. The expression of this in a form of synodi­cal government that includes representation of the laity (as well as the clergy) came later to the Church of England than to other provinces; none the less, the place of the clergy and laity in the governance of the Church is now a key mark of Angli­canism.

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In many provinces and dio­ceses in the Global South, however, the Primate’s and bishop’s writ runs as it does not in the North. This ac­counts for part of the annoyance at Dr Williams’s per­ceived unwillingness to act authorita­tively in areas where, in fact, he has no right to do so. If the Communion is serious about looking at anomalies as part of its journey towards a closer-knit Church, it will be all the more important to find a better means of drawing representative clerics and lay people into the inter­national ordering of the Com­munion. Priests and people form just one sec­tion of one of the four Instruments of Communion — the Anglican Consultative Coun­cil — and this is under vague threat of reform, not to mention the ag­grandise­ment of the Pri­mates en masse.

This is part of the bigger problem identified by Dr Wil­liams in his final address. As he put it, the question emerging from Canterbury was not “What is Lambeth ’08 going to say?” but “Where are we going to speak from?” Not only do we not know who is to resolve the Com­munion’s problems — if not the Lambeth Conference, then the Primates’ Meeting? — we do not know who can define them with any authority. The Windsor Con­tinua­tion Group attracted atten­tion during the Conference because it articulated the problem with candour. The group func­tions as something between a Select Committee and a think tank, however, and the uncer­tainty of its status adheres also to its pro­nouncements. Its remit is merely to submit recommenda­tions to the Anglican Consultative Council next spring, taking into account the bishops’ views as expressed in Canterbury.

Thus the weight given to the group’s resurrection of mora­toriums as the solution to gay consecrations, same-sex blessings, and territorial incursions seems disproportionate. The Episcopal Church in the United States will be uneasy with the request, especially as it is open-ended. When would such a moratorium end? When half the Communion embraces a more tolerant atti­tude? When Muslims in North Africa stop taunting Christians with belonging to a “gay Church”? Similarly, conser­va­tives behind plans to create an alternative US hierarchy have not been im­pressed by attempts to put extra-provincial interventions on the same footing as same-sex blessings. Nothing suggests that they have changed their view.

All this is to say that the Anglican Communion is in a bigger fix than any conference could sort out. On the other hand, the effort and expense of the Lambeth Conference justify the expectation that it will have done something to draw Angli­cans into a more coherent body. This is why the Reflections are so irritating. Where, indeed, are they speaking from? Whether for logistical reasons, or from a desire to avoid clause-by-clause wrang­ling, they were not available to bishops before they were issued. The result is a rich field for the higher criticism. To take a trivial instance, how many bishops asked for a Lambeth Conference every five years? A handful of enthusiasts, or the majority?

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This uncertainty must colour any reading of the remarks about sexuality and suggested revisions of the Anglican Covenant — a consequence of holding these discussions at the end of the Con­ference, without time to achieve any corporate ownership of the suggestions. Some of the propo­sals would take the Communion back to the drawing board, and there is no sense of the relative weight that the bishops gave to them. The Covenant remains the only game in town. It is note­worthy that it was not dismissed by the bishops, most of whom have reservations about it; but it would have been good to have more than a disjointed set of suggestions.

This adds a complication to the vital business of follow-up. In 1998, for good or ill, the pro­vinces had a set of resolutions that they could, in turn, debate and act upon. This time, it is hard to see what might persist, beyond further discussion of the Coven­ant, with or without the bishops’ contributions. It might have been preferable if a set of propositions had emer­ged from the Con­ference with an expecta­tion that provincial and/or diocesan synods de­bated and adopted them. It is possible to quarry bright ideas from the Reflections; but the Conference, given that it is not about to replace national decision-making bodies, needed a clearer means of communicating its gathered wisdom and testing it globally. One of the most power­ful experiences of the Conference was the day looking at domestic violence and the abuse of power, organised jointly with the spouses. This is an uncomfortable topic. Did the Conference give the debate enough impetus for it to continue?

The accuracy of the Reflections document would not be in doubt had there been more openness to the press. Given that few Angli­cans will ever read the Reflections — even the handy version we have produced — extending know­ledge of the Con­ference and its doings rests almost entirely with the press. A few journalists (and more bloggers) are in­veterate stirrers; but had the representatives of the media been given the chance to hear debate, and to participate in worship, the predictable stories of split and schism might have been tem­pered. As it was, the story of greater understanding and re­spect­ful disagreement was received only second-hand.

This ought to have been the story of Lambeth ’08: rifts healed, suppositions challenged, sympa­thies gained, friendships forged. It is difficult to tell, but there was no opportunity even to try. As it is, the burden falls on the bishops to be the story as they return to their dioceses. St Paul’s message to the Corinthians, appointed for the Transfiguration, is apposite: “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men . . . written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Corinthians 3.2,3). The task requires courage and a good memory. Many will want their bishop to feed back into their two-dimensional narrative of good and evil. It is a pressure that not all will be able to resist.

Those who prayed for the Lambeth Conference should take heart, since their prayers seem to have been answered; but the prayers will need to continue in earnest if the delicate hope nurtured in the personal encounters in Canterbury is to survive the coming months of global manoeuvring.

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