UNLESS he had perhaps had some contact with the Rt Revd John Smallwood, Bishop of Outer Space — played by Peter Sellers in Heavens Above! (1963) — an extra-terrestrial visitor to Lambeth Palace might well not understand what the group photographs of the successive Lambeth Conferences depicted. He would, however, easily be able to identify two features: decades of apparent uniformity, followed by incremental changes in habit, in colour, and in sex.
The story of that process is complicated; for the history of the Anglican Communion since the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 — itself precipitated by the heterodoxies of John William Colenso — is long, varied, and blurred at the edges. It is also often painful, and this volume — the fourth of Brill’s Anglican-Episcopal Theology and History series — draws out the tensions that have attached themselves to what Mark D. Chapman and Jeremy Bonner, its editors, call “benchmarks along the road of twentieth-century doctrinal disagreement” .
These benchmarks begin with the infamous missionary Kikuyu Conference of 1913, which provides the backdrop for several chapters. Other early ecumenical hopes were invariably scuppered from different directions by significant and hotly contested divergences of opinion on sacramental theology and biblical authority. Sacraments and scripture are Scylla and Charybdis to ecumenical Argonauts; it is not for nothing that this book’s subtitle is “ecumenical initiative and sacramental strife”.
The text is divided, like Caesar’s Gaul, into three parts. The first treats the eucharist, and the consideration of who may receive holy communion — a simple question with many complicated answers; the second deals with church order and episcopacy, “a central feature of the Anglican paradigm”; the third turns its attention towards Africa, and “the contextualisation of Anglicanism within African frames of reference and the development of an explicitly African Anglicanism”.
The chapters are clearly presented and well-argued; among the contributors are old hands: Colin Buchanan, Charlotte Methuen, Mark Chapman, and Jeremy Bonner. Professor Methuen places Kikuyu in its contemporary setting; she focuses particularly on the impact of the ecumenical debates of the Lambeth Conference in 1920, and the work of Cosmo Gordon Lang’s chaplain in their preparation. It is particularly good to see the important and far-reaching work of George Bell recognised once more in this respect.
Most striking are the chapters dealing with Africa. They are written either by experienced missionaries — who do still exist — or by Africans. Thomas Mhuriro writes on Anglicanism in Southern Rhodesia, and the “indisputable” part played by missionaries in a colonial agenda; he is originally from Zimbabwe and is now Archdeacon of Kimberley in South Africa. Kenya, meanwhile, is well represented by Esther Mombo, Zablon Nthamburi, and Joseph Galgado.
Professor Galgado’s chapter is the last; it responds to Frank Weston’s search for the Ecclesia Anglicana after Kikuyu, and he does not pull his punches. He concludes that theological pluralism has turned the Anglican Communion into a “tower of Babel” that is unfit for its purpose. “The current Communion must die to give way to a realigned Anglicanism,” he writes. “There is urgent need to sift through the rubble of our disintegration in order to redeem what is of the essence of the gospel of Christ and use it to reconstruct a realigned and redefined Anglicanism as the most viable way forward.”
The editors acknowledge that this view is not reflected by most of the other contributors, but they properly note the importance of its being heard — especially as preparations are being made for the postponed Lambeth Conference. This book would be well read by all the bishops who intend to come, and particularly by those who intend to stay away.
What Lambeth 2022 will deliver, God alone knows. Perhaps for now the last word belongs to Aunt Dot — from Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond — with her “firm and missionary Anglicanism, with strong prejudices against Roman Catholicism, continental Protestantism, Scotch Presbyterianism, British Dissent, and all American religious bodies except Protestant Episcopalianism”:
“You must never forget, Laurie, that dissenters are often excellent Christian people.”
I promised her that I never would.
“Though of course”, my aunt added, “you must always remember that we are right.”
Dr Serenhedd James writes for The Catholic Herald.
Costly Communion: Ecumenical initiative and sacramental strife in the Anglican Communion
Mark D. Chapman and Jeremy Bonner, editors
Church Times Bookshop £44.10