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Lambeth Conferences uphold continuity, reveal change in Anglican Communion

By James H. Thrall
7/1/1998
[Episcopal News Service]  Stretching back to 1867 when an archbishop of Canterbury first invited the world’s Anglican bishops to meet, Lambeth Conferences have played a key role in the Anglican Communion’s sense of historic continuity. But they have also marked the milestones of profound historical change for an evolving, international church.

Held every 10 years since 1948, and approximately every 10 years before that (including hiatuses for two world wars), the conferences, like the one to be held July 18-August 9 in England this summer, draw bishops together to talk and worship, pray and confer. While not a legislative meeting, a Lambeth Conference can have wide-ranging importance through the advisory statements it adopts or the reports it issues.

The name Lambeth is associated with such key historic documents as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, which set out basic principles of ecumenical dialogue and proclaimed Anglican commitment to the goal of Christian unity. And over successive generations Lambeth statements have looked inward to address the church’s own ecclesiastical controversies and outward to engage moral questions as well as international crises of war, famine, political unrest and persecution.

The conference’s greatest influence, however, may come simply through the effects of dialogue and debate among bishops of vastly different experiences. At its best, a Lambeth Conference offers a purple-tinted lens to focus the issues and concerns of a far-flung church, producing an historic snapshot of the Anglican Communion’s shifting and varied reality.

"I think everyone who goes to Lambeth is changed by it, and hopefully they come away with a broadened sense of how Christ shows up in different parts of the world, in different guises, speaking different languages, appropriating different cultural realities," said Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Certainly, "the church is never the same after a Lambeth Conference," observed Bishop Mark Dyer, retired bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem and a professor of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Largest Lambeth in history

For this, the 13th Lambeth Conference since the first gathering of 76 bishops, more bishops than ever before will participate. Because Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has invited suffragan (or assistant) as well as diocesan bishops, almost 800 bishops are expected, a significant jump from the 518 who attended 10 years ago. Their meetings, worship and special events will fill the halls of the University of Kent in Canterbury, site of the cathedral that is regarded as the "mother church" of Anglicanism, with an excursion to London for visits to Lambeth Palace, residence of the archbishop of Canterbury, and Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen.

Simultaneously, some 600 spouses of bishops will hold their own program of meetings and events.

Not only will this Lambeth be the largest, it also will reflect dramatically the communion’s shifting demographics. Voices from the developing world may manage to strongly influence the course of deliberations, traditionally dominated by bishops of England and the United States. And for the first time ever, female bishops will be present as eight women from the United States, two from Canada and one from New Zealand join their male counterparts.

Reflecting the wide divergence in cultural experiences, theological positions and personal concerns that will be represented, The Virginia Report, product of an international working group that stresses the possibilities of unity in diversity, will play a central role in the discussions.

The report "calls us to what I would describe as a more theological ground than we have been overtly aware of in the past," said Griswold. "I think Lambeth in the past has had more to do with good will rather than with a focused and carefully considered theological ground upon which we build our sense of relationship and common ministry."

Dividing the topics

For the length of the conference, the bishops will be divided by interest into four groups or sections to address different general topics:

          o Section One: Called to Full Humanity, chaired by Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, will address social and economic justice as well as pastoral concerns "both for people as individuals and for the wider societies in which they live." Subsections will consider: Human Rights and Human Dignity (specifically treating questions of racism, ethnicity and nationalism); Environment; Human Sexuality; Modern Technology; Euthanasia; International Debt and Economic Justice.
          o Section Two: Called to Live and Proclaim the Good News, chaired by Bishop Rowan Williams of the Diocese of Monmouth in the Church of Wales, will address questions of the mission of the church.
          o Section Three: Called to be a Faithful Church in a Plural World, chaired by Bishop Frederick Borsch of the Diocese of Los Angeles in the United States, will consider challenges and opportunities of diversity within the church and world.
          o Section Four: Called to be One, chaired by Bishop Jabez Bryce of Polynesia, will consider ecumenical relations. Subsections will consider the topics: Towards a Vision of the Unity We Seek--Making Visible the Unity We Share; Convergence in Faith and Order—Dialogues with Other Churches; Anglican Relations with New Churches and Independent Christian Groups.

In addition, the bishops, their spouses, and other participants, together numbering nearly 2,000, will gather on selected occasions for massive plenary sessions on certain key subjects, including the use of scripture, moral decision-making, Christian-Islamic relations, and international debt. Drawing on video presentations, drama and speakers, the plenaries will avoid presenting specific conclusions, attempting instead to lay out possible approaches the bishops might take in their consideration of the topics.

Ordination of women no longer dominating issue

While some protests against the presence of female bishops are expected, most predictions suggest that the question of ordained women—a flash point for the 1988 conference—will be essentially a non-issue.

"In gathering the agenda from the whole communion, as we did for the last three years, we didn’t have anybody who wrote to us saying that women and the ordained ministry had to be on the agenda this time," said Dyer, who will serve as editor for the conference. "You can see how calmed down the whole world communion is about this."

At least one bishop has said he will not come to Lambeth because female bishops will be present, and as many as 50 bishops have indicated that they will hold a parallel meeting in symbolic boycott. Some have indicated that they will refuse to participate even in Bible study with female bishops.

But Griswold suggested that for hundreds of other bishops Lambeth will offer a positive first exposure to bishops who happen to be female.

"I think for a great many Anglican bishops ‘ordained women’ is an abstraction rather than an incarnate experience," he said. "So my sense is that there will probably be some wonderful conversations and enlargements of perspectives that will occur through bishops coming to know some of the women bishops of the Anglican Communion."

Sexuality replaces women’s ordination as volatile issue

Of much more concern at this Lambeth are differences of opinion over the place of homosexuals in the church, as a coalition of conservative bishops pushes for adoption of a statement calling any ordination of non-celibate homosexuals or blessing of same-sex unions "unacceptable." Other bishops hope that the issue may be referred to a study process similar to that adopted for the women’s ordination question. Under the chairmanship of Archbishop Robin Eames of the Church of Ireland, a commission helped ensure that provinces stayed in conversation even when their positions on women’s ordination differed.

Bishop Duncan Buchanan of the Diocese of Johannesburg in the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, who will chair the subsection group considering sexuality, said he hopes to ensure that all voices are heard.

"There are some people who want to say that the question of homosexuality is not fundamental to the faith. Others say that it is," he said. "One of my jobs at Canterbury is to try to balance the whole lot of it."

Conference could speak forcefully on international debt

The conference could have its greatest influence, however, as it addresses a question with far-reaching economic and human impact--international debt.

When bishops in the different regions of the Communion were asked to identify their chief concerns, the burden of debt that sorely hampers the efforts of developing countries to improve the lot of their citizens was flagged repeatedly. "There were a number of subjects which nearly all the bishops thought to be a priority for consideration," Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey noted. "Amongst these, the issue of international debt stood out."

Despite advances in many developing nations, "the cost of servicing this debt hangs like a noose around the necks of their economies," Carey added. The Lambeth Conference could add an important voice to the growing chorus calling for forgiveness of the debt in a "Jubilee Year 2000," modeled on the biblical tradition of freeing slaves and returning land to its owners every 50 years.

Ndungane has called consistently for a partnership of developing and developed nations to support the Jubilee effort. "Now is the time to pull out all the stops and to harness the energy of a world that, once in a century, seems prepared to use the opportunity of the new millennium to do something that is morally and ethically right—that is the cancellation of the debt," he said.

Challenges and opportunities of Christian-Islam relations

The struggles of Christians in some regions of the world to live in peace with their Islamic neighbors, and the successful cooperation between the two faiths in other regions, will pose a daunting topic of its own for the conference participants, observed Secretary General John L. Peterson in an article in Anglican World, the Anglican Communion’s international magazine.

Experiences brought to Lambeth to be shared may range from "the Middle East where Muslims and Christians live together and support each other’s work and ministries, joining forces to seek justice and peace in the Holy Land," he wrote, to the struggles in Sudan, Malaysia and Pakistan "where conflict, fear, oppression and ignorance all combine to make living conditions almost unbearable." Of particular concern, he wrote, is conflict between Christians and Muslims in Northern Nigeria.

"Yet when we read the Koran and look at Muslim writings, we realize that there is a great respect for Christianity, and especially Jesus and Mary," Peterson wrote. "So what do we say about this? What do we say when we realize that in England the prediction is that there will be more Muslims attending services than Anglicans in the next decade?"

Prayer and Bible study undergird conference

A steady regimen of worship, prayer and Bible study will spiritually undergird the meeting.

Plenary sessions at the beginning and end of the conference will highlight scripture’s essential role in shaping the life of the church, and scripture will be key element in a third plenary on approaches to living a moral life.

Daily Bible studies of II Corinthians, in which the bishops and other conference participants, as well as the bishops’ spouses, will be able to share personal stories and experiences in smaller groups of less than 12, will be central to the conference life.

At the 1988 conference, even in the midst of diverging and conflicting opinions, the Bible studies offered a place where participants "could feel at home and have their say," observed Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward, retired bishop of Coventry who is coordinating the studies. The sessions should be "an enormously important form of building community in what is a huge and amorphous group," he said.

II Corinthians was selected both because of the personal glimpse it offers of St. Paul’s own struggles with leadership and the lessons it presents for responding to conflict, the bishop said. Paul’s description of his ministry offers lessons in "how to be a vulnerable leader," and "how to have power in weakness."

Members of all the communion’s provinces have been invited to conduct their own studies of II Corinthians in solidarity with the bishops.