Lambeth Conference needs to rethink itself

Published September 1, 1998

PUNDITS HAVE ALREADY marked this as a watershed Lambeth Conference. “It’s a new church,” said one observer in the press gallery near the end of the conference, referring to the conservative shift evidenced in the vote on homosexuality. The cultural dimension of that shift was also obvious. For the first time, Anglicans from the developing world, primarily Africa, dominated in terms of numbers.

The 224 African bishops were the largest contingent of approximately 374 bishops from the Third or developing world. About 360 bishops came from the U.K., Europe, North American, Australia and New Zealand.

But if it ends there, the watershed conference may turn out to be more of an island in a stream diverting the water around it in two different directions. If the separate streams are to reunite, there needs to be a lot more dialogue before any consideration is given to another Lambeth in 2008.

Lambeth is important but it needs to rethink itself.

First, on a purely practical level, it is getting too big. The church simply doesn’t have the money to bring in an even bigger number of bishops next time. Certainly the facilities at the University of Kent in Canterbury can’t cope with more.

But to deprive suffragan and assistant bishops the opportunity to share in a meeting of the worldwide college of Anglican bishops is hardly fair or appropriate either. After all, some bishops – probably most bishops – are only eligible to come to one Lambeth. Someone could be a bishop for 19 years and only attend one conference, if elected the year after Lambeth. (Count the number of elections in Canada in the next two years.)

One of the most important reasons for coming to Lambeth is to drop the blinkers of parochialism we all wear. It’s a big world out there. And although we can read, watch and hear about the struggles of people in far-off places, we cannot know the depth of their joy, tragedy or faith unless we meet them.

And in that encounter, one hopes both sides learn from each other.

So the primates of the communion need to think about how to have smaller conferences and meetings more frequently.

A delegation of bishops and advisers from North America and Britain might visit Africa or Asia for a couple of weeks. Two years later, perhaps the host bishops could visit Canada.

The primates might also find a way to have representatives from all orders of ministry meet. For while it is no doubt important for bishops to be able to meet collegially, it is also important for lay people, deacons and priests to be able to meet their brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.

Big conferences have their place but not for intimate, in-depth growth in faith, love and knowledge, all essential ingredients of good episcopal leaders.

The other step that should be considered is dropping the resolution format. Frankly, it’s outdated for most of the work the bishops should be doing. Groups of bishops should focus on certain topics, assisted by experts in whatever field is being discussed – including representatives from whatever political aspects there are to the issue. Since Lambeth is not a legislative body, this would have the advantage of not making pronouncements that some members are bound to break and it would allow deeper discussion of the issue without worrying about political compromises or voting tactics.

Had the goal of the sub-section on homosexuality been to produce a report instead of a resolution, it might have been able to outline the difficulties more clearly and thus laid the groundwork for more constructive talks in future. Instead, people learned too late that they had vastly different concepts of what homosexuality is.

And in the end, the vote on homosexuality is virtually irrelevant. It is a sign of where the church sat, very uncomfortably, for a few minutes in the summer of 1998. The U.S. church will almost certainly have formalized blessing of same-sex unions by the next conference and American bishops will continue to ordain homosexual priests who are in permanent relationships.

Canadian bishops will struggle with the issue and continue to talk to both sides.

Small parts of the communion may disassociate themselves from other parts, but the effect will be negligible. Even if larger parts of the communion were to realign themselves politically, choosing primates not because of where they are situated geographically but according to their theo-politics, there is little that Lambeth can do about it.

But Lambeth dialogues, structured primarily to learn more about our faith, past and present, might do much to overcome the fear and anger evident at this conference. They might also go some way to repairing the current rip in the fabric and make consideration of a future large conference less of a preparation for battle and more about celebrating our common life in Christ.


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