Lambeth’s experience of communion could feed a spiritually hungry world

July 1, 1998

Bishops of the Anglican Communion will gather at the Lambeth Conference in England this summer from all over a world many see as spiritually malnourished.

Like a hungry body yearning for food, a hungry humanity is seeking spiritual sustenance, and some bishops hope Lambeth 1998 may become a "teachable moment" for this spiritually curious world.

"There’s no doubt in my mind there’s a rather extraordinary spiritual hunger," said Bishop Mark Dyer, retired bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem who teaches theology at Virginia Theological Seminary. "Symptoms of that obviously are people following any kind of religious experience that they can find . . . and eventually some of them don’t have too much meaning. But people are going and looking everywhere."

"I certainly see a spiritual hunger in our North American cultural context and to some degree in Europe, when I’ve been in Europe in these recent days," agreed Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church in the United States. "I think that many of what I’ll call the old points of reference are not there any more. People are yearning for points of reference that will stabilize their lives and help them to come to a greater sense of meaning and of personal worth in relationship to that source of meaning."

Dyer believes the extraordinary spiritual curiosity throughout the world has set the stage "for a major presentation of Christian spirituality," and that Lambeth might become that "teachable moment" to the world as the bishops "take back with them the wealth and wonderful Christian experience of both Anglican spiritual life and Anglican theology."

As bishops take part in the shared life of Lambeth, and especially the prayer and Bible study, "sharing with both humility and love and in truth the various experiences of the Gospel throughout the Anglican Communion of bishops who represent nearly 70 million people – you cannot help but come home refreshed and have a number of very wonderful ideas and hopes and dreams of how that spiritual hunger can be fulfilled where we live," Dyer said. "I know that happened in `88, unquestionably. The church is never the same after a Lambeth Conference."

Virginia Report to set tone for Lambeth

Key to the hoped-for Lambeth experience of unity in diversity is a document called The Virginia Report. In December, 1991, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey invited a group of church leaders and theologians, including Dyer, to meet at Virginia Theological Seminary and charged them with implementing the call from Lambeth 1988 to consider the meaning and nature of communion "with particular reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, the unity and order of the Church, and the unity and community of humanity."

An initial report, Belonging Together, was circulated widely for two years. The resulting critical comments were considered by the successor to the 1991 consultation, the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, which produced the final Virginia Report.

In a pre-Lambeth mailing to all bishops, the authors offer it to the Communion "as one more step in the process of seeking greater understanding of what communion means to the Body of Christ." But its authors also described practical ways in which the Communion can respond to issues that affect how Anglicans order their lives, personally as well as corporately.

Carey hopes the report, "particularly the chapter that is entitled `God’s Gracious Gift,’ which is the gift of communion," will become the "shaping theological document of the Lambeth Conference," Dyer said. "That speaks biblically, spiritually and theologically to what it means to be an Anglican and to be caught up into the spirit of God’s communion and life, and what that means for one another and the mission of the church."

The document makes some strong statements, such as, "All injustice, racism, separation and denial of freedom are radically challenged when Christians share in the body and blood of Christ," Dyer noted. And, "God invites his people to enjoy diversity. As Christ’s body, the church must affirm that variety of gifts and use them faithfully both for the building up of the body ‘until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity to the measure of the full stature of Christ,’ and ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry.’"

The Trinity as a model for community

Dyer explained, "The theology of koinonia, or communion, says that within the church, each of us has been graced with the gift of the Holy Spirit, who has brought the life of Christ to us and made us sons and daughters of God the Father. And you and I, no matter what our race, no matter our ethnicity, have, in baptism, received that grace. And when in our diversity we stay in communion with one another, and recognize the personhood of one another, as persons in communion with God and one another, as each of us in our own way expresses that Gospel, all of us are more deeply enriched."

The Trinity itself models that diversity, he said.

"Each of us has a vision of the one truth of God according to our personality that is different from the other, and you put both together and you have a deeper vision of God," Dyer said. "Therefore that’s diversity you rejoice in, because ‘the other’ makes me richer. It’s not division; it is unity in diversity. And that’s what God the Holy Trinity is, is unity in diversity. The Father isn’t the Son, and the Father isn’t the Spirit. But yet they enrich one another in the very life of God--because of their diversity."

The Virginia Report "spoke with a very clear voice," Griswold said. "It wasn’t as ambiguous as some Anglican pronouncements sometimes are, while at the same time fully recognizing the diversity of perspectives within the communion."

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

Ecumenical interest in Virginia Report

Griswold said he also finds it interesting that the Virginia Report has caught the attention of some of the church’s ecumenical dialogue partners.

Calling it "the first instance of an Anglican theological perspective that transcends local variations," Griswold said, "I think this is one of the things that’s going on in the Anglican Communion as our local realities become more diverse in some ways. What are the things that really hold us together? What is the common theological vision that unites us? What are the instruments of our inter-Anglican unity? I think the Virginia Report is really a fine effort at clarifying some of those structures and unity and coherence."

The document speaks to the importance of the enabling structure that the church provides, Dyer pointed out. "When we wrote of the structures of the church, we wrote from the viewpoint of the smallest unit of the church up through the various other units of the church to world primacy, and the world church, and that they are interrelated . . . . So there’s an interrelationship on all levels, that is again that communion."

Dyer said the authors used the example of women in the episcopate and priesthood, and how that process was implemented throughout the Anglican Communion, because "we still don’t all agree, but we still all agree that we live in the deepest communion possible. To me that has a profound prophetic message to a world that is looking for that . . . . If we can do that as church, imagine the impact we could have on the world, and that spiritual hunger."

This will be the first Lambeth in history attended by female bishops, but Dyer predicted that their presence will not be a major dividing issue, in large part because of the work of the Eames Commission, an international committee appointed by Carey to directly address how the church could stay united even in its disagreement.

"If you’ve had the Lambeth agenda packet, if you read the Eames monitoring report of the last ten years, you can see how calmed down the whole world communion is about this," he said. "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. It’s just into the fiber of the church and the church is still praying through it and dealing with it, but for the most part, rather creatively."

Griswold thinks the female bishops’ presence is important because, "I think that for a great many Anglican bishops ordained women is an abstraction rather than an incarnate experience that they have actually had the opportunity to make part of their life. 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."

Can the Lambeth spirit be sustained?

Plans for the Lambeth Conference have the bishops not only focusing inward on church concerns, but also looking outward, to the larger world, Dyer said. But the bishops will turn inward every day, he said, "as they pray together and face one another in Bible study."

In this, the rhythm of Lambeth will echo that of the Eucharist, where "we gather within to be fed, and we meet a Christ who tells us to feed the world," he said. "And as we feed the world, we’re fed by the world, and still then run back to the table to be fed again. So that communion of the table becomes communion with others in the world, and that brings it back richer to the table."

Dyer said he believes the spirit of Lambeth will last as it spreads far beyond the conference itself.

"First off, it will be sustained by the deepening and enhancing of the spirituality of the bishop," he said. "And whether it’s clearly identified as an effective Lambeth, it nevertheless will be as the bishop continues his ministry in his or her diocese. It has to be. You just have to come back changed. An African or an Asian bishop will read St. Paul to the Corinthians with you for three weeks. And he will be saying things about that which you never imagined to be so beautiful. . . . And you’re never going to be the same again, because you’ve listened to people whose vision of the scriptures because of their culture is deeper than your own."

But Dyer believes there are still too few female bishops for their presence to have the same powerful impact on scriptural reflections that he experienced with the African bishops.

"I’d love to have a woman bishop in every Bible study, and then the impact would be wonderful," he said. "Because the gift of God that is given to each of us by way of gender gives us a different, enriching way to read the Bible and to share it together, we’re both enriched even more. So I’d like to see more of it, but I don’t doubt that those women who will be coming will make their impact."

As editor for the materials that emerge from the conference, it will be Dyer’s task to prepare the documents of Lambeth so that "a significant part of them can be made part of parish education and parish life," he said. "And that’s very much the agenda of the archbishop of Canterbury, that there be a document that can be in the hands of Anglican parishioners all over the world, and can be their experience of Lambeth with their bishop and their priest."

Griswold appreciates the difficulty of that task.

"Because the Lambeth Conference is so much a lived reality and has so much to do with personal relationships, it’s sometimes difficult to translate the things that so deeply moved you into something you can share," the presiding bishop said. "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."