Unity and Diversity in the Lambeth Conference
by Christopher L. Webber
In this multi-part essay, Christopher Webber raises questions about the history and future of the Lambeth Conference: Where did Lambeth begin? What was the original purpose? What has it accomplished? His essay is not intended as a full history of Lambeth, but a summary of the origins and main developments that may be instructive today.
Due to its length, Father Webber's essay will be published in four parts over the next few days.
About the Author: The Rev. Christopher L. Webber is a graduate of Princeton and the General Theological Seminary where he earned two degrees and was awarded an honorary doctorate. He is the author of a number of books including The Vestry Handbook, Welcome to the Episcopal Church, Beyond Beowulf (the first-ever sequel to the first English saga), and the recently re-issued Re-Inventing Marriage, as well as a new supplement to the last title, called Same Sex Marriage and the Bible (available from his website). In a ministry of fifty years and counting, Fr. Webber has served parishes in inner city, suburban, rural, and overseas communities. He is currently serving as a supply priest in the Diocese of Connecticut.
Webber has written for The Episcopal Majority before. See Listening, Causes and Effects, A Certain Madness, The Conscience of a Conservative, and 1984 in the Episcopal Church.
In this essay, he includes several quotations from the Lambeth Conference archives, which use "English" rather than "American" spelling (e.g., "recognise" rather than "recognize"). The quotations appear here as they do in the originals.
About the Sources: Quotations here have been drawn from two websites and a book:
- The Lambeth conferences of 1867, 1878, and 1888: with the official reports and resolutions, together with the sermons preached at the conferences
- The Lambeth Conference Official Website - Archives
- The Lambeth Conference 1958: The Encyclical Letter from the Bishops together with the Resolutions and Reports (New York: Seabury Press, 1958)
The Archbishop of Canterbury has sent out invitations to the bishops of the Anglican Communion to meet together at Lambeth this summer. It’s the fourteenth time that has happened, and the second time that there has been a serious question as to who might come. The first time a bare majority arrived: 76 out of 144. Many of those absent in 1868, including the Archbishop of York, had serious questions as to whether it was a good idea. Would they be creating a new center of authority? Would they be setting something in motion that might have unforeseen consequences?
In 2008 over 800 invitations have been sent, but it seems likely that a significant number will choose not to attend. Be that as it may, it seems like a good time to ask how we got here. Where did Lambeth begin? What was the original purpose? What has it accomplished? Are we over-hyping this thing? What follows is one attempt to sum it up. It is not intended as a full history of Lambeth, but a summary of the origins and main developments that may be instructive today.
Part I: The Beginning
- No binding decisions to be made
- Invitations to “all avowedly in communion”
- No defining of doctrine
- Respect for each other
- No ministry in another jurisdiction without consent
"It should be distinctly understood," said Archbishop 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.... I should refuse to convene any assembly which pretended to enact any canons, or affected to make any decisions binding on the Church.” Nonetheless, the Archbishop of York and several others from his province refused to come, and the Dean of Westminster refused to let the Abbey be used for the closing service, citing (among other reasons) "the presence of prelates not belonging to our Church." [Photo at right: Archbishop of Canterbury C.T. Longley taken in 1864 (from the Lambeth Conference website). Photo Credit: Lambeth Palace.]
Hesitantly, however, Archbishop Longley sent out invitations to “all who are avowedly in communion with our Church,” assuring them that “such a meeting would not be competent to make declarations or lay down definitions on points of doctrine. But united worship and common counsels would,” he hoped, "tend to maintain the unity of the faith.” 76 of the 144 bishops invited made their way to England in the autumn of 1868 and heard the Archbishop assure them that, “It has never been contemplated that we should assume the functions of a general synod of all the churches in full communion with the Church of England, and take upon ourselves to enact canons that should be binding upon those here represented. We merely propose to discuss matters of practical interest, and pronounce what we deem expedient in resolutions which may serve as safe guides to future action.”
In spite of all these protestations, when the bishops gathered, the Archbishop of Capetown asked for a change in the program so that he could have advice on dealing with a bishop in his province who was accused of heresy. In spite of “the strenuous protest of several bishops,” the conference appointed a committee to look into the matter and report back. The suggestion that a “Court of Appeal” be created to deal with such matters was also referred to a committee. When the committees reported back three months later, the Lambeth archives states, fewer than twenty bishops were still available to deal with them, so the reports were “received” and referred to a future conference for action.
When the Canadian bishops asked for a second conference, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait, was clear that such problems should be avoided. “There is no intention whatever,” he said, “on the part of anybody to gather together the Bishops of the Anglican Church for the sake of defining any matter of doctrine. Our doctrines are contained in our formularies, and our formularies are interpreted by the proper judicial authorities, and there is no intention whatever at any such gathering that questions of doctrine should be submitted for interpretation in any future Lambeth Conference any more than they were at the previous Lambeth Conference.” [Tait photograph (at left) courtesy http://www.nndb.com/people/390/000098096]
It was at that second conference, in 1878, that the Archbishop of York (William IX Thomson) preached a sermon that is still relevant in 2008. He drew on the story in Acts of the way in which Peter and Paul had argued in the early days of the church, and said, “It may be permitted us reverently to question whether the pulse of divine life in the Church has been hastened by one beat, by the violence of the zealous, who have thought well to be angry for the cause of God. Through strife, but not by strife, the Church has passed upon her way.” [The photo of Archbishop Thomson, at right, is from 1878.]
Also still relevant in 2008 were resolutions about unity within the Anglican Communion. It should be, the bishops said, “distinctly recognised and set forth, as 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 by their individual members” 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.”
Each member church should be free to govern its own life, but always remembering the other churches. That tension between freedom and unity was recognized early in relation to worship which, it was agreed, was central to the life of the Communion. While the bishops agreed that there should be great freedom for churches to revise the Book of Common Prayer, they also cautioned that too great variation would imperil the Communion’s unity.
The proposal made ten years before, for a “Court of Appeal,” was dealt with by a committee which announced that they were “not prepared to recommend that there should be any one central tribunal,” but rather that each province should deal with its own issues. Where a province was unable to do so, however, they agreed there might be a committee of five Archbishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, to review the case and offer an opinion. In keeping with the preliminary guidelines that ruled out doctrinal definitions, the report was not officially adopted, but rather incorporated in an encyclical letter approved by those in attendance.
Having weathered two conferences without committing themselves to much of anything, the bishops did, however, express “the hope that the problem, hitherto unsolved, of combining together for consultation representatives of Churches so differently situated and administered, may find, in the providential course of events, its own solution.” They therefore ventured to suggest that conferences might “be invested in future with somewhat larger liberty as to the initiation and selection of subjects for discussion.”
“Differently situated and administered” though the dioceses were from which the bishops came, it was still assumed that they had something in common besides Anglicanism: the Archbishop of Canterbury greeted them as coming “from all continents, and seas, and shores, where the English tongue is spoken.” Yet even then, such a greeting might have been questioned since the Bishops of Shanghai and Haiti were among those present, to say nothing of bishops from Wales and India. Overlooking that fact, the conference arranged for its encyclical letter to be translated only into Latin and Greek!
Note: Part 2 of Christopher Webber's essay will be published shortly. In it, Webber considers the Lambeth Conferences of 1888 to 1920.