A brief history of the Lambeth Conference

June 1, 2008

John Henry Hopkins was bishop of Vermont and presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church when he suggested in 1851 that a gathering of Anglican bishops would be useful, but nothing happened. Fifteen years later, the Canadian Anglican Church suggested the same thing to the archbishop of Canterbury and got his reluctant consent.

"It should be distinctly understood," said Archbishop Charles Longley, "that at this meeting no declaration of faith shall be made, and no decision come to which shall affect generally the interests of the church, but that we shall meet together for brotherly counsel and encouragement."

They would meet at the archbishop's town house in London, Lambeth Palace, encourage each other and go home again.

Even so, the archbishop of York declined the invitation, and only a bare majority (76 of 144) of the world's Anglican bishops showed up. They met for four days, and the major excitement came when the archbishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray, brought up the matter of the bishop of Natal, John William Colenso, who had done great work among the Zulus but upset the archbishop by his advanced views of biblical scholarship. In an uncanny preview of current events, the archbishop declared Colenso to be heretical and sent a new bishop to serve the same area. Colenso stuck to his guns and his diocese and is now revered by the Church in South Africa.

Nonetheless, the idea of the conference seemed good, and the bishops met again in 1878 to grapple with the nature of Anglican unity and pass some resolutions that remain relevant today. It is, they said, "of great importance for the maintenance of union among the churches of our communion" that "the duly certified action of every national or particular church...should be respected by all the other churches" and that "no bishop or other clergyman of any other church should exercise his functions within [some other] diocese without the consent of the bishop thereof."

By the third conference, 1888, the bishops had grown comfortable enough with their meetings to begin passing a wide variety of resolutions on subjects ranging from socialism to polygamy.

Nature of Anglicanism
A central concern was the nature of Anglicanism. Two years earlier, the Episcopal Church's General Convention had adopted a statement offering to work toward Christian unity on the basis of four essentials: the Bible, the creeds, the sacraments of baptism and Communion, and the historic episcopate. Adopted by the 1888 conference, it is now known as The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and has found a place in the American Book of Common Prayer (pp. 876-878).

Three conferences had created a tradition and led the bishops to imagine a wide variety of resolutions that might be adopted. The 13 resolutions of the first conference and 12 of the second had increased to 20 at the third. In 1897, the bishops adopted 69 resolutions on subjects as diverse as world peace, relations with the Eastern Orthodox, Communion for the sick and care for church members emigrating to new countries. They were very clear that, however diverse the members of the church might be in language and ethnicity, they were members of one church. They stressed again that it would be very wrong for two bishops of the church to attempt to carry on a ministry in the same area.

The issue of freedom and unity was addressed again in the statement that "it is important that, so far as possible, the church should be adapted to local circumstances...and nothing is required of them but what is of the essence of the faith, and belongs to the due order of the Catholic Church." The first of these statements, of course, left undefined what was meant by being "in full communion with the Church of England," and the second left open "what is of the essence of the faith, and belongs to the due order of the Catholic Church." More than a century later, these questions remain unanswered.

When the Lambeth Conference met in 1908, the bishops were entering a new century and facing new issues. Their focus in 16 resolutions was, appropriately, on education and training both for ministry and lay people.

There was a greater interest as well in ecumenical relationships, especially with the Orthodox, the Old Catholic Churches and the Presbyterians.

The conference condemned the opium trade and deplored the growing "disregard of the sanctity of marriage."

Those who were divorced, the bishops said, could not remarry in the church, though the "innocent party" might be readmitted to Communion after a civil marriage. Birth control and abortion were condemned.

Ironically, the bishops, while "frankly acknowledging the moral gains sometimes won by war," rejoiced in the "increasing willingness to settle difficulties among nations by peaceful methods." The outbreak of World War I caused the postponement of their next meeting.

Meeting in 1920, the bishops had nothing to say about any "moral gains" that might have been won but did commend the League of Nations to the people of the world. Americans rejected that advice.

Women's issues
The most revolutionary statement they made was to advise that women (who just had been given the right to vote in America) could be admitted to any office in which a layman might serve. It took nearly 50 years for the American church to catch up and allow women to serve on vestries and as deputies to General Convention.

In a more conservative mood, the bishops continued to condemn birth control and linked it with prostitution, calling on governments to end "the open or secret sale of contraceptives, and the continued existence of brothels."

Women's ministry was a major concern, but the restoration of the order of deaconesses was all they recommended.

By 1930, the bishops were beginning to have second thoughts about birth control. The 1662 Prayer Book, still the standard throughout the British Empire, said that the procreation of children was the primary purpose of marriage, but if parents were not enthusiastic about large families, the bishops called for "deliberate and thoughtful self-control...in intercourse" and possibly, where there were morally sound reasons, "other methods," but not "for selfishness or mere convenience."

It was 18 years until the bishops could meet again and, when they did, in 1948, recovery from the war was very much on their minds. They reaffirmed a 1930 resolution "that war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Inspired perhaps by the recently created United Nations, they provided a definition of the Anglican Communion as "a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church...bound together, not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference."

The bishops were concerned to hold up a different way of life to a war-torn world. The first eight resolutions concerned "the Christian Doctrine of Man" and human rights. The bishops affirmed "that man has a spiritual as well as a material nature, and that he can attain full stature only as he recognises and yields to the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and to the influence of his Holy Spirit."

Positions on marriage
On the subject of marriage, the bishops did little more than repeat themselves. They noted with sadness "the great increase in the number of broken marriages and the tragedy of children deprived of true home life," affirmed that "marriage always entails a lifelong union and obligation" and called on "members of the church and others to do their utmost by word and example to uphold the sanctity of the marriage bond and to counteract those influences which tend to destroy it."

Yet divorced people could not be remarried in the church. If they remarried in a civil service and wished to receive Communion, the case was to be referred to the bishop.

Not until 1958 would the bishops begin to construct a positive theology of marriage, but then they would face still more complex issues.

The 1950s are sometimes remembered as a time of peace. In fact, they were the years of the Korean War, the McCarthy hearings and the Supreme Court's decision outlawing school segregation. Nonetheless, the Lambeth Conference of 1958 may have been the fulfillment of the early vision of what such meetings could be. The conference adopted 131 resolutions, carefully organized under eight headings beginning with the Bible and ending with 20 resolutions on "the Family in Contemporary Society."

The bishops had adopted statements about marriage at almost every conference, but now they attempted to construct a complete theology of marriage and family with a very positive perspective. Marriage, they said, is a "vocation to holiness," and the idea of the family is "rooted in the Godhead." Consequently, the bishops agreed, "all problems of sex relations, the procreation of children, and the organisation of family life must be related, consciously and directly, to the creative, redemptive and sanctifying power of God."

Concentrating as they were on the family, the bishops said little about women's ministry outside the home except that "fuller use should be made of trained and qualified women, and that spheres of progressive responsibility and greater security should be planned for them."

To say, as they now did, that family planning is "a right and important factor in Christian family life" is to admit either that they had been wrong in 1920 or that the times had changed -- perhaps both were true. It was the first of several issues on which the bishops would reverse earlier stands in the last half of the 20th century.

Changing stances
When the conference convened in 1968, Pope Paul VI had just issued his statement condemning birth control. The Lambeth bishops said they could not "agree with the pope's conclusion that all methods of conception control other than abstinence...are contrary to the 'order established by God.'" Of course, this meant that the Lambeth bishops had been wrong themselves in 1920.

Many of the bishops thought they also had been wrong on the subject of women's ordination, but the conference only said that "the theological arguments as at present presented for and against the ordination of women to the priesthood are inconclusive."

The 1968 conference called for creating a consultative council including approximately equal numbers of clergy, both bishops and priests, representing the member churches.

The council, which became the Anglican Consultative Council, would have authority only to study, coordinate and advise. A communion that had been held together by "mutual affection," a prayer book tradition and occasional meetings of bishops, now would have a representative body meeting every two or three years. Communion would be expressed through a committee.

None of that, of course, dealt helpfully with the question of the ordination of women. Thus, when the bishops convened in 1978, they found that the world had moved on without them.

Women already had been ordained in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong. The bishops acknowledged "that both the debate about the ordination of women as well as the ordinations themselves have...caused distress and pain to many on both sides." They felt that their role was primarily pastoral: "To heal...and to maintain and strengthen fellowship." They pleaded for patience and sensitivity and suggested the possible provision of alternative ministry for those unwilling to accept women as priests and bishops.

Sexuality issues
Other, even more painful issues, already loomed on the horizon. There was a need, the bishops said, "for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research."

Few churches responded to the Lambeth resolution, and the bishops were no more ready to deal with the subject in 1988 than they had been 10 years earlier.

The Lambeth Conference can recommend but not command. The bishops had said at their 1978 that there was a need for careful study of sexual issues.

But when they gathered again in 1988, the study had not been done, and tensions were greater than ever. The bishops discussed "the present impaired nature of communion." They said there was a great need for "sensitivity, patience and pastoral care towards all concerned." But bishops facing intractable divisions were "encouraged to seek continuing dialogue with, and make pastoral provision for, those clergy and congregations whose opinions differ from those of the bishop, in order to maintain the unity of the diocese." How separate pastoral provision would maintain unity was not explained.

If the bishops could not agree on homosexuality, they did agree to reverse themselves on a stand taken 100 years earlier and allow the baptism of polygamists if they promised not to marry again and if the local community was agreeable.

Before the 1998 Lambeth Conference convened, First World conservatives began building bridges with Third World bishops in preparation for the next gathering. Instead of trying to understand each other, factions were forming in preparation for battle. The result was prolonged and angry debate.

Concerning homosexuals, the bishops committed themselves "to listen to the experience of homosexual persons" and "assure them that they are loved by God and...full members of the body of Christ," but homosexual practice was rejected "as incompatible with Scripture." A resolution referring to homosexuality as a "kind of sexual brokenness" and calling on bishops who ordain homosexual persons to repent was defeated, but the bishops they would not "advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same-gender unions." They called for a listening process, but again many churches failed to take part and others were unwilling to listen.

Questions of unity
How, then, is unity to be preserved where such divisions exist -- or how might it be regained? The resolutions concerning respect for diocesan boundaries, first adopted more than a century earlier, were reaffirmed. Bishops could not be a sign of unity while encouraging division. But these resolutions also have been often ignored.

A summary of such a tumultuous history is all too likely to reflect the concerns of the moment and the point of view of the individual historian. This review has focused on two central issues: changing understandings of gender and sexuality, and the balance between diversity and unity.

In regard to the concerns of the moment, the initial hesitancy to pronounce on anything rapidly shifted in the latter part of the 20th century, when there were few things on which the conference did not have an opinion. The initial insistence on dispersed authority left a vacuum that the Primates Meetings now seem determined to fill.

In regard to gender and sexuality, earlier positions taken on polygamy, birth control and remarriage after divorce have been reversed.

All this seems to raise again the central question of Anglican life: can a Christian community exist without a central authority and narrow definitions of doctrine? One proposed answer is an Anglican covenant, which some see as a hopeful way forward, but others reject it as changing the focus of Anglican life from communion to laws.

A careful review of our history, even one narrowly focused on some aspects of the Lambeth Conference, might lead us to be less sure of ourselves, readier to listen and more willing to leave a generous room for difference. If so many definitive statements of Lambeth have proved subject to change, how sure should we be of our own current pronouncements?

Might it be better to recognize that we might be wrong again; that sexual attitudes may be culturally conditioned; that we do best when we do least to divide ourselves and do most to center our life on a pattern of worship that draws us closer to the redeeming love of God?

This year's conference will seek to provide guidance on these questions. It will need our prayers.

-- The Rev. Christopher L. Webber is the author of several books, including Beyond Beowulf, the first ever sequel to the Old English epic. He serves the Diocese of Connecticut as an examining chaplain, writing frequently for its diocesan newspaper.

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