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Lambeth Conference: Early steps on the path to unity

14 August 2020

One hundred years ago, Anglican bishops made a bold ecumenical move. Mark Chapman describes its impact


Anglican bishops from around the world, assembled in a long line (split here, top and bottom) for the 1920 Lambeth Conference, in procession behind Lambeth Palace

Anglican bishops from around the world, assembled in a long line (split here, top and bottom) for the 1920 Lambeth Conference, in p...

THE 1920 Lambeth Conference’s “Appeal to All Christian People” is justly famous as a landmark in ecumenical history: it is a bold invitation by the “Bishops of the Holy Catholic Church in full communion with the Church of England” to other Churches to forget “the things which are behind and reaching out towards the goal of a reunited Catholic Church”. This would require them to absorb episcopacy into their systems.

LAMBETH PALACE LIBRARYRandall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1903 to 1928The Appeal, which paved the way for the great United Churches of the Indian sub-continent, was also significant for another reason: it redefines Anglicanism as something that was at its heart both un-Protestant and un-English. The form of religious life which had emerged in England from the 16th century was fundamentally transformed by the Lambeth Appeal: Anglicanism was finally freed from the Protestant religion of the English State and had mutated into a form of non-Roman Catholicism detached from its Reformation roots.

In the whole 1920 Appeal, there is nothing at all about the Book of Common Prayer or the Thirty-Nine Articles. Instead, the Anglicanism expressed in the Appeal is a kind of inclusive Catholic Church without a pope, which seeks to expand its networks in the name of wider unity or Catholicity. This seemed particularly suited to the post-First World War world, which the Appeal called a “new age with a new outlook”.

After all, the liberal pan-Protestantism represented by many Anglicans in pre-War years had run into the sands through liberalism’s association with Germany’s war aims. In response, Anglo-Catholicism had risen to the ascendant, as had sympathy for the Orthodox churches, some of which had been important allies. The Lambeth Appeal amounted to a call for a kind of League of Nations for the Churches so that denominations, including Anglicanism, at least in its limited Protestant and English form, would disappear in a new form of Catholicism.


SUCH an idealistic hope amounted to culmination of the ecumenical impulse of the so-called Quadrilateral of the Lambeth Conference of 1888. This had reduced the criteria for reunion with Anglicans to acceptance of the Bible, the Catholic creeds, baptism and eucharist, and the “historic episcopate”, without any mention of any Reformation formularies.

Anglicanism was thus recast in an ecclesiological rather than a doctrinal direction, quite distinct from what had gone before.

First and foremost, Anglican identity had been established in opposition to Rome during the splits of the 1530s; and later it was increasingly aligned with Continental Protestantism through the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth.

Anti-Catholic Protestantism persisted for a long time afterwards, and was cemented in the 17th and 18th centuries with the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and the Act of Settlement of 1701, which meant that the first two Electors of Hanover and Supreme Governors of the Church of England who ruled Britain from 1714 were German-speaking Lutherans.


SO, HOW is it that a clearly Protestant Church could mutate into something defined by the portentous Catholicity of the Lambeth Appeal? Crucial is the idea of the via media which became increasingly part of Anglican self-definition from the 17th century. Initially used to portray the English Church as filling “in the gapp against Puritanisme and Popery, the Scilla and Charybdis of antient piety”, as Richard Montago put it in 1624, a few centuries later the idea had mutated into a reconceiving of Anglicanism as something opposed to Protestantism altogether.

In 1813, for example, the Irish lay theologian Alexander Knox declared that the “nick-name protestant” had had a “perverse influence” on our Church: Anglicanism thus stood between the two extremes of Protestantism and Papism.

The leaders of the Oxford Movement agreed: their desire to return to the Early Church was part of a more general desire to rid the Church of England of Protestantism: a form of Anglicanism established on the Early Church, which was the central thrust of the Tracts for the Times, left little space for the Reformation or Protestantism.

This became deeply influential into the 20th century, as the heirs to the Tractarians grew to increasing prominence in the Anglican Communion. As Anglicans moved into the ecumenical era, there quickly developed what William Van de Pol called a strong “Anglican dislike of being called ‘Protestant’”.

At the same time, there was a recasting of Anglicanism as something that was neither essentially English nor connected to the constitutional settlement of the English Church. This was particularly the result of the increasing influence of the American Episcopal Church.

After independence, it had gradually developed into a Church quite distinct from the Church of England. It was forced to adopt a theory of the “primitiveness” of the episcopate as independent from the State and to emphasise the authority of the whole people of God.

Later, in response to the catastrophic results of the American Civil War, William Reed Huntington, who devised the Lambeth Quadrilateral, saw Anglicanism as synonymous with what he called “American Catholicity” defined in terms of “a simple creed; a varied worship; a generous polity”.

It would be a fatal blunder, he felt, for the Church of America to mimic the Church of England, which he saw as little more than “a flutter of surplices, a vision of village spires and cathedral towers”. True Anglicanism was instead to be found first and foremost in continuity with the Primitive Church, and did not require England or the Reformation.

At much the same time, the First Vatican Council and the resulting divisions within Catholicism also helped redirect Anglicanism away from its Englishness. The pioneering efforts at reunion with Rome in the 1860s were shattered for generations by the declaration of papal infallibility.

This meant that many High Churchmen, who, while sharing many of the assumptions of Anglo-Catholics, had little desire for reunion with Rome, could make the most of the new situation. In the years after 1870, they exercised a powerful influence on the Church of England, promoting an anti-Roman union of “Catholic” Churches in which Protestant doctrine or Englishness was of little importance.


FOR some Anglicans, most prominently Christopher Wordsworth, Bishop of Lincoln, who drafted the official response to the Vatican Council, it offered a new opportunity to work with disaffected Roman Catholics — the Old Catholics — to help to establish national Catholic Churches that looked much like his High Church vision for the Church of England. As the Old Catholic Churches began to develop their own structures, so they came to resemble the model of an un-English, non-political and non-established form of Anglicanism.

This bore some fruit, leading eventually to full communion between the Church of England and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht in the Bonn Agreement of 1931.

With the increased awareness of the national Churches of the Orthodox world which came with the First World War, there was a renewed impetus towards a form of ecumenism in which Anglicanism would lead the way as it became increasingly neither English nor Protestant.

This dynamic led to the production of the Lambeth Appeal by a group of bishops from across the church parties and from around the world, including England and India from within the British Empire, and the United States from outside.

These were dominated by such unlikely bedfellows as Hensley Henson, the liberal Bishop of Durham, and Frank Weston of Zanzibar, the outspoken leader of Anglo-Catholicism. They were convinced that there was potential for church reunion on the basis of a new form of Catholicity that would reshape the Christianity of the future; but, in the process, it would help move Anglicanism away from its Reformation moorings.


ALL in all, then, the 1920 Lambeth Appeal marked the culmination of a long process in the reshaping of Anglicanism as it ceased to be the Protestant religion of the English State. The full story is obviously far more complex than can told here, but what is clear is that Anglicanism was never a stable phenomenon, but was profoundly shaped by both internal and external factors, especially the first industrial war fought in the United States in the 1860s, as well as the rise of the Italian State, which shook the foundations of the papacy.

The Lambeth Appeal of 1920 was a response to another industrial war, and helped to reshape Anglicanism for the rest of the 20th century: Anglican identity no longer required adherence to anything English or to any Protestant formularies. Instead, it was defined in the most minimal way possible around scripture, creeds, the two dominical sacraments, and the “historic episcopate”. Lambeth 1920 marks the culmination of the “un-Protestantising” and “un-Englishing” of Anglicanism.

The Anglican Communion has lived with the consequences of such a minimal definition ever since. Whether an inclusive version of non-Roman and un-Protestant and un-English Catholicism has a future in today’s crises, only time will tell. What is clear is that many Anglicans have already given up on the idea and want something quite different.


Canon Mark Chapman is Vice-Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and Professor of the History of Modern Theology at the University of Oxford.

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