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Lambeth Conference marks 'defining moment' for Anglican Communion

By James Solheim
9/3/1998
[Episcopal News Service]   When nearly 750 bishops of the Anglican Communion poured, in a river of purple cassocks, into historic Canterbury Cathedral on July 20 to open the 13th Lambeth Conference, the worship service was a powerful display of the diversity that now marks the world's 70 million Anglicans.

Greeting the congregation in Swahili, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, joined in a procession by the primates of the 37 members of the Anglican Communion and the Prince of Wales, presided over a liturgy that included dancers from Panama and music from many cultures. And for the first time, it included a female bishop.

In his sermon, Bishop Simon Chiwanga of Tanzania, chair of the Anglican Consultative Council, said that the conference had a special opportunity, a "holy moment," to demonstrate "our ability to speak the truth in love" while engaging in "passionate debates." He urged the bishops to look for the Christ in each other.

In 90-minute Bible study sessions each morning, and closed sessions in four groups that dealt with the major issues, the bishops crossed cultural barriers and groped for a common understanding. In the process the bishops from the younger churches, most of them the heirs of Western missionary efforts, found their own voice.

Center of gravity shifts

When the conference adjourned after three weeks, it was clear that the center of gravity of Anglicanism had shifted to the church in the developing world—and that the bishops, especially those from Africa and Asia, had some sobering messages for their brothers and sisters on controversial issues such as human sexuality.

Of the 736 bishops registered at the beginning of the conference, 224 were from Africa, 95 from Asia and 316 from the United States, Canada and Europe. "I think that this conference has shown us that the church in the south… has for all intents and purposes come of age," said Archbishop Peter Akinola of the Church of Nigeria, one of the fastest growing churches.

Despite efforts to balance the agenda, sexuality issues threatened to dominate the conference. After a lengthy and emotional debate, by an overwhelming vote of 526 to 70, with 45 abstentions, the bishops passed a resolution that said homosexual practice is "incompatible with Scripture" and that the choice for Anglicans is between "faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in life-long union" or abstinence. At the same time, the resolution called on the bishops to "listen to the experience of homosexual people," assuring them that "they are loved by God and that all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the body of Christ." The bishops said that they "cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions, nor the ordination of those involved in such unions."

In a move that opened him to criticism, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey endorsed the resolution before the final vote, saying that he saw "no room in holy Scripture or the entire Christian tradition for any sexual activity outside of matrimony" and that the resolution merely reinforces "Anglican belief and morality."

A statement released the day after passage of the resolution, and signed by 146 bishops--including 65 American bishops and the primates of Canada, Ireland, Brazil, Central Africa, New Zealand, Southern Africa, Wales and Scotland--pledged the church to work for the full inclusion of homosexuals in the life and ministry of the church, apologizing for "any sense of rejection."

Reactions vary among Americans

Reaction to the resolution varied. Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold abstained, saying that he found parts of the resolution "positive in both tone and content" but adding that he "took exception to other parts and believes that we must explore more fully the whole question of what is compatible with Scripture." He issued a letter to the church August 14 (text in Newsfeatures section) assuring his "continuing concern for and commitment to all members of the Episcopal Church who recognize themselves as gay and lesbian."

Bishop James Stanton of Dallas hailed the resolution for speaking "clearly and forthrightly. The Anglican Communion upholds biblical Christian teaching on sexuality" and that is "good news for the American church and for our ministry in American society."

Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis said that she was disappointed in the debate and the final resolution. "I think we have chosen foolishly today, but I believe God is still reigning," she said.

Strong action on international debt

Despite the high visibility of sexuality issues, international debt emerged at the top of nearly everyone's agenda in pre-Lambeth regional conferences. The final report and resolution demanded a response from governments and financial institutions but also churches.

"International debt is the new slavery of the 20th century," said Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of the Province of Southern Africa, who chaired the section that discussed the issue. "The human costs of the international debt burden is intolerable. Its effects are evil and sinful," he said.

The resolution points to the damage, both materially and spiritually, of the expansion of the power of money and borrowing, largely as a result of action by Western banks in the 1970s.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn strongly objected to the image of the bank and its work as portrayed in a video, calling it "quite simply wrong. We do not get up every morning and think what we can do to ruin the world." Instead, he called for a partnership with the churches, asking them to realize the limits of the World Bank's capacity to forgive debts because it is accountable to the 180 countries which fund the organization.

A delegation of bishops met with British government leaders, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and diplomats from Canada, Russia and Germany, as well as representatives of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Brown credited efforts by the churches with pushing the issue to the top of the agenda and said that it is "our inescapable duty to try to ensure by the year 2000 all highly indebted poor countries are embarked on a systematic process of debt reduction."

During a luncheon with the bishops at Lambeth Palace in London, Prime Minister Tony Blair said that "the new global challenges are problems that we solve together as one global community—or not at all."

Words of support for traditionalists

Traditionalists who continue to oppose the ordination of women found some comfort in a resolution passed by a margin of 80 percent that said no bishop should be compelled to ordain or license women and that provision should be made for those who continue to dissent.

Worked out by some of the 11 women bishops, present at Lambeth for the first time, the amended resolution calls on the provinces of the communion "to make such provision, including appropriate episcopal ministry, as will enable them to live in the highest degree of communion possible, recognizing that there is and should be no compulsion on any bishop in matters concerning ordination or licensing."

Several American bishops quickly pointed out that the resolution contradicts the action of last summer's General Convention that calls on the four dioceses which block access to ordination or licensing of women to develop a plan to implement the church's canon guaranteeing access.

One of the four bishops, Jack Iker of Ft. Worth, said that the resolution "made me feel that I'm not on the extreme right-wing side, but stand with most bishops." Bishop Catherine Roskam of New York, on the other hand, pointed out that the resolution had no binding effect in the United States and "doesn't mean anything in terms of our own polity." She said that she doubted that the House of Deputies "is going to take that one sitting down."

Despite tension over the acceptance of women in the priesthood and episcopacy, the Lambeth 11 said that they had been welcomed with "a gracious and generous spirit," in the words of Bishop Victoria Matthews of Edmonton (Alberta). Even bishops who do not ordain women went out of their way to welcome the women, often asking them to pose for a photo.

While she joined the procession into the cathedral for the opening Eucharist, Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island said that a male bishop reached for her hand and said, "Welcome to Canterbury Cathedral."

A stronger Anglican Communion

In a closing press conference, Carey said that the Anglican Communion left Canterbury "significantly stronger than when we began." Pointing to the resolutions on sexuality and international debt, he said that the bishops "had the opportunity of wrestling together over three weeks with issues which are profoundly important for the life of people and churches around the world."

Carey said that, in both the Bible studies and small groups, "we have heard marvelous stories of fortitude and heroism in the face of the multitude of problems, and have tried to offer an honest message to the Communion and to the wider world, of where our common understanding rests at this moment."

In the face of obvious disagreements, especially on the resolution on homosexuality, Carey underscored his determination "to listen, to try to understand more of their experience of the church, and I invite them to continue the journey with us, however painful, and I ask them to listen to the voice of the church as much as the rest of us listen to them."

No one doubted that the conference had been a defining moment for Anglicanism. "We will never be the same again," mumbled one bishop as he sauntered out of the final plenary.

In other actions, the Lambeth Conference:

° reaffirmed a resolution from 1988 which bars bishops and priests from exercising their ministries in another diocese without permission of the local bishop;

° declared that euthanasia should not be permitted in civil legislation and that those who advocate it "show little awareness of the Christian experience that people may be redeemed and transfigured through their suffering";

° condemned Pakistan's blasphemy law that has been used to persecute Christians and called for the release of prisoners who are unjustly accused and detained;

° set up a body to monitor, promote and offer advice on interfaith relations, especially with Islam, "and to arrange for adequate support and relief for Christians who are persecuted";

° recognized the autonomy of member churches but asked for exploration of a way for the primates and the archbishop of Canterbury to exercise more authority, especially in resolving conflicts in the Communion;

° asked the Anglican Consultative Council to set up a way to monitor, promote and advise on interfaith relations, particularly with Muslims;

° sought a way to support the formation of an Anglican Urban Network to share information and experiences of urban ministry;

° urged bishops to get personally involved in ministry among youth; ° entertained the possibility of a world congress of Anglican lay people, possibly in South Africa, that would bring together 4,000 delegates for several weeks of discussion.

° asked the ACC to look at the size, location and design of the next conference.

° resisted a commitment of the church to a Decade of Transformation and Renewal, following the Decade of Evangelism that just ended.