The Lambeth Conference: Theology, history, polity and purpose by Paul Avis and Benjamin M. Guyer, editors

by
29 June 2018

Michael Doe wonders about the Lambeth Conference’s future

AS THE Anglican Communion starts to look with expectation and hesitation towards the next Lambeth Conference in 2020, this collection of essays will provide some very useful background information but, sadly, not many pointers for its planners or those hoping to attend.

There are those who, in the words of Edward Norman, will dismiss it as “a periodic conference of once like-minded individual Christians who have little now in common but a colonial past”. But that would be to underestimate how many bishops around the world see the Communion, with its bonds of affection and also the belief, or at least the hope, that our shared inheritance, our Anglican identity, can be the basis for a new kind of global family and a co-ordinated response to the needs of a hurting world.

The Anglican Communion seeks to be more than a federation, but without any imposed constitution or top-down authority. The Lambeth Conference is not a Vatican Council. In recent years, this has been tested to the limit. On the one hand, Western liberals have pressed ahead with changes, in the spirit of Anglicanism and for the sake of mission. On the other, conservatives from some parts (and only some parts) of the global South, with some North American support, have resisted such changes, in the name of the Bible, and again for the sake of mission.

As a result, while 1988 survived the ordination of women, in 1998 the divisions bubbled over. In particular, the final plenary mauled the work that some of us had struggled to produce over three weeks and issued the now notorious Resolution 1.10, declaring homosexual practice to be incompatible with scripture. Lambeth 2008 was very different: many bishops stayed away, the General Synod-like plenaries were replaced by a more African process of indaba, and much was owed to the saintly leadership of Rowan Williams.

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The Windsor Process was set up to resolve some of these problems, and Gregory Cameron writes about that, perhaps rather wistfully, given his part in the design of the proposed and now seemingly dead Anglican Covenant. Going back, Paul Avis describes how Archbishop Tait called the first Conference in 1867 as an expression of communion and explicitly not a council or synod.

Given that all its members are bishops, Jeremy Morris writes about episcopal leadership. At only one Conference (1908) did it coincide with a Pan-Anglican Congress, as proposed by my illustrious predecessor as Secretary of SPG, Bishop Montgomery. And I note in passing that this is one of the very few references in the whole volume to the missionary societies — yet another sign of how they have dropped out of both memory and current support.

Mark D. Thompson, from Sydney, blames the “revisionists” who have forsaken the authority of scripture, claiming that it is now GAFCON and Global South Encounters that fulfil the original aims of the Lambeth Conference. Ephraim Radnor is in similar mood: communion has been lost because Conversionary Mission is no longer a shared goal.

Benjamin Guyer and Mark Chapman provide some historical perspective, on establishment here and a different kind of polity in the United States. Mary Tanner provides an interesting essay on the part that the Conference plays ecumenically. More about how we might learn from the structures and challenges being faced by other world confessional bodies would have been useful.

Two contributors say more about Anglicanism itself. Stephen Pickard describes an Anglican polity and life that are premised on diversity and mutual discernment; so we need stewards rather than instruments of communion. Martyn Percy, in a brilliant essay that should be compulsory reading for every Anglican ordinand, rejects mechanistic and organisational models of leadership which result in more compressed and contracted forms of polity: we need to be concerned with shaping true sociality rather than imagining a domestic ecclesiastical polity restricted by membership­­­.

The real problem with this book is that all the contributors are white Westerners, while it is in the Majority World that Anglicanism is growing. The absence of their voices is a lost opportunity. The Anglican Communion is no longer the Church of England writ large. The Lambeth Conference might feel very different if it moved from Canterbury to, say, Cape Town or Bangalore.

It may, therefore, be significant that the most insightful and practical chapters come from two non-British women. Cathy Ross, from New Zealand, wants to leave colonial Christianity behind, claiming that most of the Communion has broken free from the captivity of Western Christendom, although she may be too optimistic in believing that centres of power elsewhere may not repeat the same mistakes. Alyson Barnett-Cowan, from Canada, calls for a Lambeth Conference where bishops come not to deliberate, but to really meet.

In his foreword, the Archbishop of Canterbury refers to the “faith, dedication and utterly infectious joy” that Lambeth Conferences have generated. Those of us who have had the privilege of travelling the Anglican Communion have seen all of that at first hand. Those of us who have been part of recent Lambeth Conferences have experienced both that and the opposite. The challenge before the 2020 Conference is whether, as Anglicans, we can make these bones live again.

The Rt Revd Michael Doe is a former General Secretary of USPG and author of Saving Power: The mission of God and the Anglican Communion (SPCK, 2011).

The Lambeth Conference: Theology, history, polity and purpose
Paul Avis and Benjamin M. Guyer, editors
Bloomsbury T & T Clark £85
(978-0-567-66231-6)
Church Times Bookshop £76.50

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