Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Unity and Diversity in the Lambeth Conference

Editor's Note: This is the 2nd part of Christopher Webber's essay, continued from here, about the history and future of the Lambeth Conference. Information about the author and resources appear in Part 1. Subsequent parts of his essay will be published over the next few days.

Part II: Broader Agendas
by Christopher L. Webber
  • Resolutions adopted on church and social issues
  • Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral adopted
  • Definitions of “full communion” and “essentials of faith” not adopted
  • Sexual issues raised: divorce and contraception condemned
  • Women to be admitted to all lay ministries

This mid-18th century painting by Samuel Scott shows Lambeth Palace from across the River Thames. The image appears here, courtesy of the Society of Genealogists.


By the time a third Lambeth Conference was called for, the idea of such meetings had become a tradition. Therefore, the agenda in 1888 was much bolder than that of the first two conferences, ranging from socialism to polygamy and including "Authoritative standards of Doctrine and Worship” as well as "Mutual relations of Dioceses and Branches of the Anglican Communion.” Now, for the first time, resolutions were brought before the bishops and officially adopted. The bishops acted not only upon resolutions having to do with the life of the church, but also with the civil societies in which they functioned.

“Intemperance” had become an issue in the growing cities of England and America, and the bishops suggested that governments could help by restricting the number of places where alcohol could be drunk and the hours when such places were open. In the Anglican spirit of balance, they also condemned the fanaticism of many prohibitionists as sometimes “uncharitable and presumptuous.” Now that resolutions were being adopted officially, disagreement became visible. Resolutions on not admitting polygamists to baptism found from 20% to 40% of the bishops in opposition.

The life and unity of the church were a primary concern. The principles laid down ten years earlier, that each national church should respect the work of the others and that bishops should not enter the dioceses of others without permission, were said to have been “neglected,” and therefore were reaffirmed. Statements had been made in the past about not “defining any matter of doctrine,” but it was this conference that accepted the principles known now as “The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral” as a sufficient basis for Christian unity.

The conference also suggested that it would be useful for the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a small committee to draw up a simple statement of the teaching of the Anglican Communion on such subjects as the Catholic Faith, the Holy Scriptures, the Sacraments, the Forms of Prayer and Liturgy in use in the Anglican Churches, the relation of the Anglican Churches to the Church of Rome, the Churches of the East, and other Christian Churches and Societies, and the relation of the teaching of the Church of Christ to human knowledge. [Edward White Benson (depicted at left) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883-1896.]

The conference agreed that the 39 Articles could well be amended in some particulars. Such a statement surely went well beyond the limits laid down for the first two conferences.

The conference also stated its opinion via reports received and included by reference in an encyclical letter on divorce and polygamy, among other things, in spite of the fact that there was considerable dissent on both matters, ranging from almost a quarter to well over a third of the bishops present. A long report on “purity” was adopted, calling on bishops and churches to work for a reformation of manners in relation to marriage and sexual matters. The bishops were concerned, they said, to “guard the innocent, to punish the guilty, to rescue the fallen, to suppress the haunts of vice, and to remove temptation from our thoroughfares.”


In 1897, at the fourth Lambeth Conference, the bishops set out to define themselves by referring to letters of the earlier conferences which had been addressed to “Archbishops, Bishops Metropolitan, and other Bishops of the Holy Catholic Church, in full communion with the Church of England, one hundred in number, all exercising superintendence over Dioceses, or lawfully commissioned to exercise Episcopal functions . . . .” 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 the people brought to feel in all ways that no burdens in the way of foreign customs are laid upon them, 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.” Over a century later, these questions remain unanswered.


The first conference of the 20th century, in 1908, found sexual matters claiming a central place on the agenda. The sanctity of marriage was seen to be threatened, and the bishops called on all “right-thinking and clean-living men and women” to defend the institution. Divorce, except for adultery and fornication, was not to be tolerated. The bishops declared that those who were divorced, even if “innocent,” could not marry again in the church. That resolution was carried by a vote of 87-84. They declared, though, that the “innocent party,” if re-married in a civil ceremony, might be re-admitted to communion. Birth control and abortion were condemned as well.

The 1908 Lambeth Conference agreed that the “ministry of the laity requires to be more widely recognised.” However, when they came to deal with the creation of a consultative council (called for by the previous conference), they resolved that such a council should be composed of 18 bishops chosen by the various provinces.

[Sidenote: The idea of a "consultative council" appears as early as the call at the 1868 gathering for a "Spiritual Court of Appeal," but no such "court" was created. In 1878, there was a suggestion of a "Voluntary Board of Arbitration," but again no such board seems to have been put in place. There was a call in 1897 for the Archbishop of Canterbury to create a "consultative council," but still there is no evidence that it was done. It seems there was some continuing interest in having a tool available to resolve disputes, not a body meeting at regular intervals; but no such group was created, and apparently no disputes were referred. All these proposals, of course, were to include only bishops and usually archbishops. The distinguished American Bishop of Olympia, Stephen Bayne, who became the first Anglican Executive Officer, created what he called an Anglican Consultative Council after the 1958 Lambeth Conference to work with him, but there is no indication that such a group was formally constituted as an authorized gathering until 1968.]


The First World War made it necessary to postpone the next Lambeth Conference until 1920, and the war had begun to change settled views on a number of issues. Women, said the 1920 conference, should be admitted to all councils in the church in which lay men served. Here the conference was, indeed, staking out new territory. It took the Episcopal Church in the U.S. another fifty years to get itself in line with Lambeth and admit women as deputies to its General Convention.

On other matters of gender, however, the bishops at Lambeth were much more hesitant. The use of contraception was seen as a “grave danger - physical, moral and religious,” and the distribution of prophylactics was seen as “an invitation to vice.” The bishops believed that the use of such materials “threatens the race.” An echo of this viewpoint might be found in the response of the Church in Nigeria to the request of the 1998 Lambeth Conference that the Communion should listen to homosexuals as the Nigerian Church stated that such practice “threatens . . . the continuation of the race.” The bishops called on Christians everywhere to bring pressure on governments to end “the open or secret sale of contraceptives, and the continued existence of brothels.”

Part 3 of the essay will be published in the next day or two. In it, Webber considers the Lambeth Conferences of 1920 to 1968, characterized by a focus on the purposes and nature of marriage, the drive for a definition of the Anglican Communion, and an expansion of the membership and mission of the Consultative Council.


Anonymous Deacon Charlie Perrin said...

Ah... "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

(Sorry, I don't remember the original French)

1/31/2008 2:15 PM  
Blogger Malcolm+ said...

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

There would be a sedilla under the c in ca to make it soft (sa rather than ca). I think there might also be a circumflex over the e in meme.

It is hypothetically possible to type those characters, but I don't know how.

2/05/2008 10:15 AM  

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