Bishops interpret meaning of Lambeth Conference for their dioceses

September 25, 1998

Bishops of the Episcopal Church have been struggling to explain the meaning of this summer's Lambeth Conference to the folks back home. Some of them took advantage of the technological facilities-over 200 computer terminals spread across the Kent University campus, thanks to a grant from Trinity Church of New York-to file regular reports by electronic mail. 

Bishop Frank Gray of Northern Indiana, for example, told his diocese, "A most important part of this conference will never be reported in the press or observed in photo opportunities. This part, like the beating of the heart, occurs in quiet ways away from the highly visible places. I speak of the small groups of 10 to 12 bishops who meet daily for prayer, Bible study and discussion." His group included bishops from England, Canada, Peru, the Sudan, South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Cyprus and Northern Indiana. "Wherever I go I listen for stories. There are tales of love, tragedy, humor and grace."

Daily liturgies were offered by different provinces of the Anglican Communion. Gray said that he was moved to tears the day the Church in Japan conducted a liturgy on the Feast of the Transfiguration, anniversary of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. "I went to the Eucharist expecting to be berated about the bombing. Instead, the Japanese Church apologized for the militarism which led to World War II and for the brutality of the Japanese Imperial Army. I found myself in tears for this is the first time I have ever heard an apology from the Japanese people." Gray's family was imprisoned by the Japanese during the war. The sermon was by a priest who was the daughter of the bishop of Singapore who had been tortured by the Japanese Army and later "went on to baptize one of the persons who had tortured him."

"We U.S. bishops were advised before arriving to keep still and listen, and we did," Bishop Frank Allan of Atlanta said in a reflection. Most of the energy of the conference centered on the issues of homosexuality and world debt, he observed. "I believe this focus was symptomatic of a far deeper cultural, economic, religious and political suspicion." When the bishops moved into plenary to debate and vote on resolutions, "eyes never met. There is much we could have come to understand about our common faith, suffering and compassion, had we spent more time conversing eyeball to eyeball, as we did in our small groups," he said.

While not surprised by the vote on sexuality resolution to affirm the traditional teachings of the church, Allan said "what surprised and shocked me was the rhetoric of hate and condemnation. A new biblical fundamentalism has taken hold in the Anglican Communion, and this concerns me because it is idolatrous. The issue is not the authority of Scripture, but the interpretation of Scripture."

Women receive warm welcome 
Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine expressed similar excitement about the small group meetings. "The pace of this conference is so intense-the stimulation of so many ideas, conversations, new faces, reading material, press interviews, etc. have forced me to find a few centering points in the days' schedule." She found nourishment in the daily Eucharist in which the Lord's Prayer, "prayed in the native tongue of each participant, all making a hum of prayer which rises and falls like a great wave." And there are the stories "filled with the lovely grace of simple hum encounter." She added, "In spite of the very strong differences between us, there is a true sense of family here."

Knudsen said that the women bishops were "uniformly well-received," with "not one bit of discomfort by any." She added "it has been very good for this Lambeth to break through the gender barrier as it has. I have had more invitations than I can count to come overseas to this or that place to provide people a chance to meet a bishop who is a woman," which she declined because she is still settling in with her diocesan family.

As she listened to the stories of the church under persecution, "I have had my heart stretched and broken at the stories I hear, and have had my heart warmed at the amazingly warm welcome and affection which continues to surround us who are women, and the genuine spirit of community we have built."

The last week was rough for most of the bishops, including Knudsen, who said it was "exhausting and painful." When she put up her hand to vote against the amended resolution on sexuality, "I was hissed and verbally harassed by people sitting around me." As she had during the election process, she said that she was "prayerfully persuaded that God is calling us to be an inclusive church, in which all people are welcomed, without prejudice or condemnation." She promised that she would "do everything in my power to assure that Maine becomes ever more a safe place for everyone to seek and serve Christ, whatever their opinions or circumstances."

What holds Anglicans together?
Knudsen's colleague, Bishop Barbara Harris of Massachusetts, the Anglican Communion's first woman elected to the episcopate, was even more blunt. In her column in the diocesan newspaper, she expressed relief that the conference was over "and I never have to do this again!"

Even though she knew a number of the bishops, Harris said, "Nonetheless, I was struck by how precious little we really know about each other and the cultural norms and values with which we live, as well as the depth of our divisions." She added, "At times it was difficult to fathom what holds the Communion together beyond our love of the Lord Jesus Christ and Wippell's [international outfitters to the clergy]."

In trying to explain "the tone of the most contentious resolutions the conference passed," she pointed to "our different understandings and interpretations of Scripture, its place in the life of the church and the struggle of rapidly growing churches in the hostile environments of many developing nations. Another factor, she said, was the different sharing of authority in parts of the American church. "To put it more bluntly, in many provinces of the church-particularly those in African and Asian countries-diocesan bishops hold absolute sway."

For Harris "the vitriolic, fundamentalist rhetoric of some African, Asian and other bishops of color, who were in the majority, was in my opinion reflective of the European and North American missionary influence propounded in the Southern Hemisphere nations during the 18th, l0th and early 2nd centuries."

The hard-line stance on gays and lesbians and the role of women in the church was rooted in what she called "a belief in the inerrancy and primacy of Scripture, which supports a preexisting cultural bias" and that meant bishops from the developing world brought the same truth "that not only had been handed to their forebears, but had been used to suppress them." And they found allies in "a small contingent of U.S. bishops who had been unable to move their agenda at last summer's General Convention."

A new way of being church
Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana in his column in the diocesan paper, said that he was "taken aback, humbled and shocked at the stories of persecution, depravation and discrimination that many of our fellow, Anglicans face around the world. The crucifixion of priests, children being sold into slavery or denied an education, children being denied an education, pregnant women being cut open to satisfy a bet of soldiers on the sex of the baby, the genocide of people who have been Christians for generations-the stories were appalling."

Christianity living under such dire circumstances "tends to be more biblically literalist, and apparently less willing or able to live with many of the shades of gray with which we in the West have grown comfortable," he added.

As a result of his experience, Jenkins said that "we are challenged to find a new way of being the Anglican Communion. The old way of being church, with a high degree of provincial autonomy and a trust in ways English, is no longer viable. As much as I liked it, it holds nothing for the future. If we try to hold onto this we will disintegrate from a world-wide, catholic communion into a squabbling mass of little entities. The spiritual implications of such are a disaster. There is nothing more dangerous to a Christian than schism. So we must find a new way of being the Anglican Church."

Like many of his colleagues, Jenkins observed that culture "stained" every debate. "I do not take away the theological integrity of any position, but culture informed the faith, and thus the debate, more than I had expected it would. This says something to me about the level of anxiety in the church and the world and the difficulty of moving beyond that anxiety. The reactivity to this Lambeth is also a sign of that anxiety."

Tense experience for Spong
In his column entitled, "Christianity caught in a time-warp," Bishop Jack Spong of Newark blasted the process and results of Lambeth, charging Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey with abandoning his role as a diplomat, throwing his weight "verbally and visually behind resolutions that have in fact left this church polarized. Once more in the name of the God of love, the church has managed to insult gay and lesbian people and to suggest to women everywhere that they are still a problem in the body of Christ."

Calling it "a tense, difficult and negative experience" for many, Spong added, "No one seemed to recognize that the church in the West had engaged our modem world with its challenging scientific and secular insight far more significantly than has any other part of the communion." And, he said, "We lived at Lambeth with perceptions of reality so vastly different that the same words simply did not mean the same thing. We became aware that difficult local circumstances so deeply colored one's frame of reference that those outside those circumstances could never understand the words that were being spoken."

"Western leadership was disorganized, inept, incapable of working strategically and without a common purpose," Spong said. "Their overt refusal to draft a minority statement when it was clear that their point, of view had no chance of prevailing and in fact was almost certainly going to be overwhelmed meant that liberal bishops were reduced to making individual responses when the vicious resolutions were passed, statements that he said "lacked both power and persuasiveness and did not provide an effective place behind which opponents of the majority point of view could rally."

Historic watershed
Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh on the other hand, said that he was convinced that Lambeth will "be seen by a who look back to it as a watershed in Anglican history" by "outlining matters that cannot be changed, in redefining the nature of the Communion as truly global, and reestablishing the balance (and the means) by which autonomous national churches are sacrificially submitted to one another."

He acknowledged that the conference was "a very difficult one" for the American bishops, who found themselves to be "very marginalized, very far away from the Anglican center." For him the issue is "whether we can be re-centered." In the Bible studies centered on Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, "We are reminded that the apostolic way to re-center a church is to love it, to encourage it, to go to it and, only after all of that, to challenge it. It also demands speaking out of repentance, weakness and the cross, not out of power, wisdom or pride."

"At Lambeth there was an implicit taboo against saying anything critical of the African Church," Bishop Martin Townsend of Easton wrote. "Its phenomenal evangelical success in the face of serious persecution has placed it above reproach. Yet one Nigerian bishop in my group, 35 years old, conceded that polygamous marriages do happen after people become Christian. He went on to say that the church couldn't afford to discipline them because they are usually village leaders. The other Nigerian bishop and the Kenyan bishop in the group agreed that such things happen." He concluded, "Clearly, how the faith gets lived out is culturally influenced."

Time for Episcopal Church to repent?
At a gathering at Trinity Church in Ft. Worth September 10, following an earlier appearance in Dallas, Bishop Jack Iker of Ft. Worth and Bishop James Stanton of Dallas said that Lambeth had sent a clear message to the Episcopal Church to repent and "foreswear its foolish ways."

In light of the Lambeth resolution 3.2 on the ordination of women, Iker called on Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold "to exercise his leadership as chief pastor in front of his church and declare that [the canon requiring all dioceses to implement open the ordination process to women] is not in keeping with the best of Anglicanism and contrary to the great expressed will of the whole Communion and will not be enforced." Iker said that "the reasonable thing for the Episcopal Church to do is admit they made a mistake and retract the changes they made." Yet he admitted "that's not going to happen. The arrogance of the Episcopal Church is so beyond control there's not going to be any reconsideration."

Iker said that the conference "is a wake-up call to the Episcopal Church in the USA." For him the question was whether the Episcopal Church is "humble enough to hear what the Communion has appeared to say." He is convinced that the conference "has reminded us that we are answerable to one another, that what we say and teach and preach and legislate in this country affects brother and sister Anglicans all over the world. It is a communion of mutual accountability and we, as the Episcopal Church, must avoid turning our backs on the Communion. If we do, we do so at our own peril"

Stanton heatedly repudiated what he saw as attempts by liberals in the secular media and the Episcopal Church to downplay the importance of the vote on sexuality. He said that he was "tired of spin" and resented reports that he had bought votes on the sexuality resolution.

"No vote needed to be bought," he said. The overwhelming vote "tells me that there were some people who didn't like this phrase or that, but when it came down to the wire, that house accepted the whole statement." He pointed out that the vote was not a split between north and south, that it carried with majorities in the U.S., England, Canada and Australia. Lambeth made it clear, he said, that "diversity does not mean there are no limits to what provinces can do and still claim to be in communion."

Dismissing some claims in the press that "this is a victory for the conservatives or the traditionalists triumphing over the liberals or whatever," Iker said, "It is nothing more and nothing less than a clear proclamation of biblical truth and the historic faith of the Anglican Church.... No longer does the United States or England speak for the Anglican Communion but the church in Africa and Asia does." He returned with a new appreciation for the cultural diversity of Anglicanism. but as one rooted in orthodox biblical theology. "For me the Lambeth Conference was a proclamation of Anglican identity."

Amazing power shift
"The Africans came determined to speak their minds, and when it was all over, it was clear they had done so," said Bishop John Howe of Central Florida, a leading traditionalist. The votes at Lambeth will put the debates in the Americans church into what he called "a very different perspective."

"This Lambeth Conference has demonstrated beyond any possible argument that those of orthodox persuasion are in the very mainstream of Anglicanism, and the extremists are those who have chosen an agenda to the contrary. Should they make good. on their vows to continue that agenda, despite the decisions of Lambeth, there is little doubt they will find themselves increasingly isolated and out of communion with many of the other provinces around the world," Howe said.

Speaking to the staff at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said that the bishops struggled to honor one another's perspectives but that it was difficult at times. As a participant in the final plenary on the Bible, he said that the conversation "revealed the heart of diversity" in interpreting Scripture. "Finding ways to talk about the authority of Scripture is an important task for the church in the future," he said.

Agreeing with most observers that Lambeth experienced "an amazing power shift" toward the churches of the developing world, Griswold saw some benefits in making future conversations more equitable.

--James Solheim is the Episcopal Church's director of news and information. Katie Sherrod of Ft. Worth contributed to this article.

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