Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Unity and Diversity in the Lambeth Conference

Editor's Note: This is the 3rd part of Christopher Webber's essay on the history of the Lambeth Conference, continued from Part 2 here. Information about the author and resources appears in Part 1.

Part III: Coming to Grips with Unity and Diversity
by Christopher L. Webber
  • Marriage seen as primarily for procreation (1930)
  • Definition of Anglican Communion adopted (1948)
  • Growth in understanding of marriage (1958)
  • Consultative Council given broader membership and mission

This image of Lambeth Palace is an 1834 engraving from the Government Art Collection.


When the bishops next gathered at Lambeth Palace, in 1930, their views on marriage remained those of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which was still the standard book in most parts of the Communion. That book stated, and the bishops re-affirmed, that “the primary purpose for which marriage exists is the procreation of children.” If parents were no longer enthusiastic about large families, the bishops called for “deliberate and thoughtful self-control . . . in intercourse.” At this conference, there was no condemnation of prophylactics, although the bishops still believed that limiting or avoiding parenthood should be effected primarily by abstinence. Now, however, they resolved that “where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence . . . other methods may be used” – though not for selfishness or mere convenience. What those other methods might be – when the use and sale of prophylactics was condemned – was left unclear, but at least the bishops seemed to recognize that the world was changing and the 1662 Prayer Book might not be the last word on the purposes of marriage. But there was strong opposition to this statement and, though it was approved by a 3-1 margin, 67 bishops voted against.


This photograph during the Lambeth Conference (from July 3, 1948) shows (L to R) Bishop Hallwood of Hong Kong, Bishop Chang of Fukien or Fujian, Bishop Percy Jones of Sierra Leone, and Assistant Bishop R. W. Jones of Wales. Photo by Edward G. Malindine, Topical Press Agency.

World War II created another obstacle to meeting, and it was 1948 before the bishops assembled again. Inspired, perhaps, by the recently created United Nations, the 1948 conference was the first to attempt a definition of the Anglican Communion, stating that:

The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common:

  1. they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches;

  2. they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and

  3. they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.

At the first Lambeth Conference the question of creating a “Spiritual Court of Appeal" was raised, and the next conference suggested creating Voluntary Boards of Arbitration for Churches to which such an arrangement may be applicable, but nothing was done. The 1897 Conference called on the Archbishop of Canterbury to institute a “consultative body” to provide information and advice on request, but nothing seems to have been done as result of that call. The 1948 meeting finally defined a Consultative Council made up of bishops that would serve as the continuation committee of the conference and empowered it to deal with any matters referred to it by the Archbishop of Canterbury, but without legislative or executive powers. It seems unlikely that the Council met during the next ten years.

The Conference also affirmed “that the marriage of one whose former partner is still living may not be celebrated according to the rites of the Church, unless it has been established that there exists no marriage bond recognised by the Church.”


By 1958, the Lambeth Conference was ready to look at marriage in a much more positive way and rooted its statements carefully in a positive theology. 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.” Family planning, they now agreed, is “a right and important factor in Christian family life and should be the result of positive choice before God.” Instead of condemning contraception, they now believed that methods “mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience” were acceptable.

Concentrating as they were on the family, the bishops had little to say about women’s ministry outside the home except to say 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.”


But women were planning for themselves, and when the bishops met again, in 1968, the issue of women’s ordination was upon them and they were not ready. The Lambeth Conference expressed the opinion that the theological arguments for and against the ordination of women to the priesthood were “inconclusive,” and asked that the member churches study the matter carefully and seek advice from the Consultative Council before doing anything rash.
Photo at right: The Rev Dr Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion, was ordained on 25 January 1944 in the diocese of Hong Kong. Several other provinces were considering the ordination of women to the priesthood. The ordination of Li had a somewhat special character; the Diocese of Hong Kong said it was necessary under wartime conditions because there were no male candidates available. Li formally resigned her orders after the war, but resumed her ministry once the ordination of women was
recognized in Anglican Churches. Photo courtesy of
Anglican Journal.

The bishops also took note of the recent papal statement condemning all methods of birth control except abstinence and the so-called “rhythm” method. The bishops at Lambeth agreed that the pope was in error on this subject. Of course, that meant the bishops themselves had been in error in 1920; but Anglican bishops can change their minds, and popes find it difficult to do that.

The bishops had always been reluctant to exercise leadership, but now they were willing to share it. The 1968 conference made radical changes in the Anglican Consultative Council, ordering it to include equal numbers of bishops, priests, and lay people from the five largest provinces and a priest or lay person as well as a bishop from the others. The Council could also select six other individuals to serve with them, of whom two must be women and two less than 28 years old. Now, for the first time, there would be an official body created to help build relationships between the member churches of the Communion. A Communion that had been held together simply by “mutual affection,” a Prayer Book tradition, and occasional meetings of bishops would now have a representative body meeting every two years. Communion would be expressed through a committee.

Editor's Note: Part 4 of Webber's essay continues here. In it, Webber considers the Lambeth Conferences from 1978 to the present. He focuses on the ordination of women as a central and divisive issue, the 1978 call for a study of homosexuality, the recognition of a state of "impaired communion" (dating from 1988), and the changing role of the primates.


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