ON 24 SEPTEMBER 1867 — 150 years ago this month — 76 bishops from around the world gathered at Lambeth Palace. They were there at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, for four days of meetings and consultations.
Two factors lay behind the calling of the meeting. First, conflict: the missionary innovations of John William Colenso, Bishop of Natal, in South Africa, had caused consternation among other Anglicans. Yet confusion over whether the Archbishop of Cape Town had the authority to depose Colenso for alleged heresy led some bishops to urge Longley to call a meeting of bishops.
In 1865, the provincial synod of the Canadian Church had passed a resolution urging Longley to find a means “by which the members of our Anglican Communion in all quarters of the world should have a share in the deliberations for her welfare”.
The Canadian resolution points to a second factor: a move towards the formation of synods. In the mid-19th century, the Convocations of Canterbury and York were re-established, as well as the first meetings of diocesan synods in colonial territories. These meetings provided a model of common meeting for decision-making which offered a template for some sort of international gathering.
Meanwhile, self-governing synods had been meeting in the United States and Scotland since the 18th century, and questions were being asked about how these synods and their Churches related to the Church of England.
Longley reacted cautiously. Synods may have existed in particular regions, but there was less clarity about the grounds for bringing together bishops from around the world. In explaining what ultimately led him to act, Longley told the Convocation of Canterbury: “It should be distinctly understood that at this meeting no declaration of faith shall be made, and no decision come to which shall affect generally the interests of the Church, but that we shall meet together for brotherly counsel and encouragement . . .
“I should refuse to convene any assembly which pretended to enact any canons, or affected to make any decisions binding on the Church.”
The invitation went to all bishops, including Colenso; but only about half chose to attend. The Archbishop of York, William Thomson, absented himself, concerned about the potential confusion that such a meeting could cause. Longley’s cautious approach set the tone for the meeting.
The Archbishop of Cape Town had hoped to secure approval for his deposition of Colenso, but, of the 13 resolutions the conference passed, only two dealt with what was euphemistically referred to as “the present condition of the Church in Natal”. Neither expressed clear condemnation.
DESPITE its uncertain beginnings, Lambeth Conferences soon became a regular, if infrequent, aspect of life in the Anglican Communion. Occurring approximately once every ten years, these conferences have been an opportunity for bishops to come together for, in Longley’s words, “counsel and encouragement”; to write reports and letters to the faithful; and to express a common mind on issues of the day in resolutions.
Sometimes, these writings have been significant. In 1920, for instance, bishops issued “An appeal to all Christian people”, which called for a new era of ecumenical openness, and renewed work towards a Church that expressed the visible unity of all the baptised. The letter both expressed and encouraged the ecumenical enthusiasm that would become a hallmark of the 20th-century Church in the West. Other reports, however, sank quickly out of sight, rarely to be recalled.
Recent Lambeth Conferences have featured many statements and reports about mission — often quite profound and important. Yet these have rarely gained traction. Different resolutions have different impacts around the Communion. Bishops in 1988 called for the 1990s to be a Decade of Evangelism. This was greeted with mild derision in parts of the United States and England, but had a transformative impact on many Churches in the global South, which welcomed the support and encouragement towards deliberate church growth.
The same 1988 conference was addressed by the Orthodox theologian and bishop Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon (News, 2 July 1988). His reflections on the nature of the Trinity, and communion, had a strong influence on some Anglicans — particularly on the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission and the Windsor Commission — who had the task of thinking about what it meant to be a global family of Churches in the midst of conflict.
Resolutions may be one of the clearest and most succinct products of Lambeth Conferences, and yet it has never been clear precisely what authority lies behind these resolutions. This month, the Communion’s Secretary General, the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon, called for a debate about the “moral weight” of resolutions that would emerge from the 2020 gathering.
“The Conference carries a lofty moral authority, which is not legally binding on the provinces, since they are autonomous; but, when it speaks in a formal resolution, the whole Christian world, not just the Anglican Communion, should listen,” he wrote in his report to the standing committee.
The Anglican Communion lacks a constitution, although in recent decades the Lambeth Conference has been called one of four “Instruments of Communion”, along with the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates’ Meeting, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. While a gathering of bishops may inherently command some respect, its resolutions have no clear function in the life of Anglicans around the world. Resolutions have been as likely to be ignored, forgotten, disregarded, or changed by a subsequent Conference as they have been to be recognised as expressing the consensus thinking of all Anglicans, everywhere.
ANGLICAN ARCHIVESA group photo of the bishops present at the first Lambeth Conference in 1867
Reading through the resolutions and documents of past Lambeth Conferences is none the less instructive in learning about matters of importance at particular moments in history, and the attitude of bishops towards these issues. The 1888 Conference, for instance, passed a resolution asserting that “persons living in polygamy be not admitted to baptism”: a response to an issue that missionaries encountered in their work around the world.
One hundred years later, however, several African bishops spearheaded a resolution that expressed a more open view: baptism was to be open to those in polygamous marriages, provided they took no further wives and divorced none of their current wives.
Successive Lambeth Conferences in the early 20th century passed resolutions against “the growing practice of the artificial restriction of the family”, but, by 1930, bishops were more relaxed about birth control, acknowledging that there could be a “clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood”.
Early Lambeth Conferences repeatedly condemned divorce, often in strong terms. Yet, in the past 50 years, bishops have had almost nothing to say on the topic, even though many Provinces of the Anglican Communion have made provision for marriage after divorce.
More recently, the issues that have dominated Conferences have been gender and sexuality. Beginning in 1968, bishops began to consider the ordination of women. Yet the infrequency of Lambeth Conferences meant that individual Churches often made decisions faster than bishops could collectively respond. In 1968, bishops urged caution; but, by the 1978 meeting, bishops in several Provinces had ordained women.
Bishops managed to muster a large majority for a resolution that acknowledged that each individual Church could make its own decision in the matter, and that “the holding together of diversity within a unity of faith and worship is part of the Anglican heritage”. It was a sentiment in keeping with Longley’s initial desire for a gathering at Lambeth: counsel and encouragement, yes; but decisions binding on the whole Church, no.
Resolutions about the welcome that the Church extends to gay and lesbian people have been more contentious. The 1998 Conference is in large measure remembered for Resolution 1.10, which committed bishops to “listen[ing] to the experience of homosexual persons” (News, 14 August, 1998). It also rejected “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture”; urged Anglicans “to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals”; and concluded that it could not “advise” blessing same-sex unions, or ordaining those in same-gender unions.
Resolution 1.10 has had a greater afterlife than almost any other Lambeth resolution. Unlike the resolutions regarding the ordination of women — as divisive an issue in its time as homosexuality — Resolution 1.10 did not seem designed to seek the greatest possible degree of consensus and unity. Rather, its apparent clarity has been pointed to as a touchstone of orthodoxy and a limit on the autonomy of Provinces.
Yet the clarity of the resolution can be deceptive. While it is easy to see which Churches have “violated” the stricture against blessing same-sex unions, it is harder to know how to identify Churches that have failed to heed the call to listen to gay people, or condemn fear of homosexuality (News, 18 November).
In 1867, Longley had ensured that no resolution condemning Colenso would come forward, thereby ensuring that there was no moment so divisive that it irreparably split the Conference. Resolution 1.10 worked against that model.
THE location of Lambeth Conferences is crucial — and also potentially distorting: by bringing together a large number of bishops in England, they make the job of religion reporters easy. One of the most remembered moments of the 1998 Conference was also one of its most mediagenic: a confrontation between the Bishop of Enugu, in Nigeria, Dr Emmanuel Chukwuma, and the Revd Richard Kirker, of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, in which the former prayed for the latter’s deliverance from his homosexuality.
STEFAN ROUSSEAU/PAThe Revd Richard Kirker, General Secretary of the LGCM, in the encounter with Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma at the 1998 Lambeth Conference which received wide media coverage
In such an environment, it is easy to see how the unassuming meal between two bishops that leads to a long-term relationship between their dioceses slips by unnoticed. By gathering so many bishops so close to one of the world’s main media centres, Anglicans implicitly indicate that these are the voices that should be heeded — even as Anglicans also insist that their Churches are synodically governed, and that Lambeth Conferences have no structural authority.
The 2008 Conference eschewed resolutions (as had the Conference of 1878), and instead offered a reflections document that emerged from the meetings known as “Indaba groups”, from a South African word for consultative meetings (News, 1 August 2008). Some bishops, especially from Anglican Provinces in Africa, declined to attend the Conference, and, instead, attended the first Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem that summer (News, 4 July 2008).
The resulting Jerusalem Declaration was a forthright statement of faith: a radical new approach for a meeting of Anglican bishops, and one that Lambeth Conferences had never before felt compelled to take. Indeed, they had sought to avoid it. A second GAFCON meeting was held in Nairobi in 2013 (News, 25 October, 2013), and a third is planned for 2018.
THE Archbishop of Canterbury has called for the next Lambeth Conference to be held in 2020 (News, 17 March). A committee chaired by the Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba, who was instrumental in putting forth the Indaba idea in 2008, has sent save-the-date invitations to diocesan bishops for a meeting in July 2020.
Many questions attend the planning. First, who will attend? It is unclear whether those who avoided the Conference in 2008 will attend this time. Given an increasingly tight immigration system in England, it is equally unclear that all bishops who wish to attend will be able to enter the country legally.
It is also unclear whether the invitation list will be restricted solely to bishops. Anglicans have, in the past, called Congresses — gatherings of priests, lay people, and bishops — and the GAFCON meetings have not been restricted to bishops. The Anglican Consultative Council has, on several occasions, passed resolutions urging that a new Anglican Congress be called (Opinion, 22 January 2016).
Indeed, plans were explored for such a gathering to be tied to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, but were ultimately dropped for lack of funding. It may be time to ask whether it makes sense for a meeting of bishops to take precedence over a meeting of a more representative swath of Anglicans.
The agenda of the 2020 gathering is potentially enormous. Archbishop Welby has made reconciliation a key theme of his tenure. As various Anglican Provinces around the world grapple with issues of reconciliation — from racial reconciliation in the United States, intercommunal reconciliation in places such as South Sudan and Kenya, to reconciliation with indigenous populations in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere — it may provide a helpful unifying theme. It will also be the 100th anniversary of the Appeal to All Christian Peoples.
Ecumenical ardour at the institutional level has cooled since the heights of the mid-20th century, even as grass-roots ecumenism is making new strides. Evangelism has been another theme of Archbishop Welby’s tenure, and is a strong theme in many Provinces.
One feature that has united all Lambeth Conferences has been the close relationship between the Conference and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The caution and hesitation expressed by Longley in calling the first Conference was manifest in the tone of the resolutions: an outcome that ultimately allowed for further Conferences to be called. The emphasis on prayer, discussion, and relationship at the 2008 Conference was in keeping with the ministry of the then Archbishop Rowan Williams.
In looking ahead to the 2020 Lambeth Conference — or #Lambeth2020, as it will no doubt soon be dubbed — the most significant questions to ask may be these: What does Archbishop Welby hope to achieve in such a Conference? And how will that be expressed in the structure, agenda, and tone of the gathering? It is answers to these questions that will determine the impact of the 2020 Conference on Anglicans around the world.
The Revd Dr Jesse Zink is the Principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College, and the author of Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A search for unity (Morehouse).