Lambeth disproves doomsayers

Published May 1, 1998

Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey talks to Edmonton’s Bishop Victoria Matthews at a Lambeth planning meeting last year.
Photo Jim Rosenthal

As Anglican bishops from around the world gathered for the 1988 Lambeth Conference, there were dire predictions the Communion would be torn apart by the ordination of women and the likelihood of female bishops.

That conference, doomsayers said, would be the last of the meetings which have been held every 10 years – except during the two world wars – since the bishops were first called together in 1867.

The dismal prophets have been proved wrong. In July, about 800 bishops – 42 from Canada – will gather on the campus of Kent University in Canterbury for the 13th Lambeth Conference. It will be the largest ever and, for the first time, female bishops will attend – 11 in total, including two Canadians.

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town, South Africa, said the 800 bishops at Lambeth will reflect the Anglican Communion’s tradition of rich diversity, “of culture, race, ethnicity, education, sexual orientation, language, access to resources and individual personality.”

It is a diversity, the archbishop said, that at times reflects the North-South divide – the divide between the rich, developed countries and the poorer, developing countries – that finds expression in “national identities and is articulated from a range of theological perspectives and church traditions.”

Archbishop Ndungane chairs a conference section that will tackle such subjects as the international debt and economic justice, the environment, euthanasia and human sexuality.

With the end of the millennium approaching, many churches – Anglican and others – are calling for the “remission of unrepayable world debt by the year 2000” to ease Third World economic problems.

Debt remission finds broad support in the Communion. The explosive nature of what Archbishop Ndungane calls “the church’s response to homosexuality” is another matter.

Will this year’s conference produce a North-South divide on sexuality? Rev. David Hamid, director of ecumenical affairs and relations for the Anglican Consultative Council in London, thinks not.

“The line is not necessarily divided between North and South on either side of the question – it’s going to be much more subtle than that,” he said. “Movements in northern churches are not quite as polarized in one direction or another,” while some statements from Brazil and southern Africa have been more “Anglican mainstream.”

As with the ordination of women, “we are dealing with theological and non-theological factors – there are also cultural and sociological factors that sometimes have equal force,” he said.

And while it is difficult to speculate where specifics might lead the human sexuality debate, Canon Hamid said what will be stressed at the conference is what the Communion has learned about living with diversity around the question of women’s ordination.

“It is hoped that that kind of learning will be able to be transferred to and applied to other potentially divisive questions,” he said.

Michael McAteer is a Toronto freelance writer.


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