Lambeth meeting shows its Canadian roots

Published May 1, 2008

In this second feature in a series that examines the upcoming Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Journal looks at the historical contribution of the Canadian church to the once-every-10-years meeting of the bishops of the Anglican Communion.

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On Sept. 20, 1865, the provincial synod of the United Church of England and Ireland in Canada at a meeting in Montreal, passed a memorial that became a first step that led to what is now the Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world.

That memorial had urged then-Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley to adopt means “by which the members of our Anglican Communion in all quarters of the world should have a share in the deliberations for her welfare, and be permitted to have a representation in one General Council of her members gathered from every land.”

During this period, the Church of England in Canada, in particular the colonies in the east, had become autonomous, explained Archbishop Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1986 to 2004. “That meant that they were no longer part of the jurisdiction of the Church of England, and the same thing had happened in South Africa. So both of those provinces were independent,” he said. “In Canada, the church organized synods in dioceses and began to create a structure for governing itself, and the same (was true) in South Africa. But there were anxieties about what status these structures really had within (the) worldwide Anglicanism.”

There were also concerns that the self-governing churches had lost their connection with the mother church in England and Ireland, as Canada itself continued its transition from a self-governing British colony into a fully independent state. (Until the 1830s, the Church of England had appointed the Anglican bishops in Canada, and funding for the church came from the British Parliament.)

Archbishop Longley consulted “both branches of the United Church of England and Ireland, as well as those in the different colonies and dependencies of the British Empire” and appointed a committee to consider the Canadian request. In 1867, amid the objections of some bishops who feared that such a meeting would create new structures of authority, Archbishop Longley convened the first Lambeth Conference. He did so with the assurance that at such an assembly “no declaration of faith shall be made and no decision come to what shall affect generally the interests of the church.”

At the launch of this year’s Lambeth Conference, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams acknowledged the role that the Canadian church had played in the creation of the assembly. The first Lambeth had been called, he said, “in response to a crisis about the limits of diversity allowed in the Anglican churches around the world.” But he added, it also signalled a time “when non-English, and indeed, non-white influences were for the first time making a real impact in the Communion, and needed to be celebrated and affirmed.” He added: “Not only did the Canadian church contribute strongly to the thinking around the Conference; it was also attended by the first black Anglican bishop, Samuel Crowther from Nigeria, who had been made a bishop just three years earlier.” The gathering “was a moment when there was a real acknowledgement that a worldwide church had to find ways of sharing its challenges and its triumphs – and some aspects of its decision-making,” said Archbishop Williams.

Then as now, the Anglican Church of Canada has been deeply engaged in the life of the Anglican Communion, as shown by its support for the Lambeth Conference and other instruments of unity.

“Our record is that we take Lambeth seriously,” said Archbishop Peers. He cited that in 1988 the Canadian church made the decision that from thenceforth, each diocese would make an annual contribution for the succeeding conferences.

This would assure funding for the Canadian bishops to attend it, and would furnish Canada’s contribution to bursaries for provinces that cannot afford to send representatives. “So money is sent each year to Lambeth, which is good because it could then be invested,” in the intervening years of the conferences, said Archbishop Peers.

Resolutions at Lambeth are passed to committees and councils within the church “and we act as we think appropriate,” he added. He cited how the Canadian church has been a strong supporter of the Anglican Consultative Council, which was established after the 1968 Conference decided that the Communion needed a more-representative body that could meet more frequently.

He noted that the Canadian church was among those who embraced the Council’s early program, Partners in Mission, which invited churches to share their resources for the enrichment of the whole church’s mission.

The Canadian church has also been a leading advocate for reform – with Archbishop Ted Scott, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1971 to 1986, among those who argued strongly in favour of women’s ordination. Canadian bishops have likewise been among the strong advocates for social justice issues at various conferences.

In 1988, Archbishop Peers became the first to preside over a Lambeth meeting in a language other than English when he chaired the first-ever meeting of French-speaking Anglican bishops. It was also the first time that Lambeth offered translations in French, Spanish, Japanese and Swahili. The Canadian and American churches had to find the money to make this possible, he said. “The initial plan was to have a one-way translation – English would be translated to another language but not vice versa and we said, ‘that can’t be.”

At the 1998 conference, the Canadian church had “strong representation” in the iscussions about human sexuality, “because we were further along in the public debate,” said Archbishop Peers. “We had voices from various sides sharing their expertise.”

Other Canadian contributions have ranged from seconding General Synod staff to the conference, to bishops chairing various meetings and conferences.

For instance, at the 1968 conference, Bishop Ralph Dean of Cariboo worked as the episcopal secretary of the Conference, while Archbishop Howard Clark, archbishop of Rupert’s Land and primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, chaired a discussion on The Renewal of the Church in Faith.

The former bishop of Edmonton, Victoria Matthews, was part of the Saint Augustine’s seminar last year that contributed to part of the planning process for this year’s Lambeth. Earlier she was part of the communications committee for the 1998 Lambeth Conference, where women bishops were invited to attend for the first time.

The retired bishop of Niagara, Ralph Spence, will be chaplain to the workers at this year’s conference and will also be “helping out with disciplinary matters.”

Bishop Matthews said that at this year’s Lambeth, the Canadian church will bring, in the person of its primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, “an ecumenical leader,” citing his role as co-chair of the international Anglican-Lutheran conversations.

She added: “Beyond that, I think Canadians bring their sense of living with diversity and when I say that, I’m talking about First Nations, I’m talking about French and English language, and I’m talking about the many different cultures that exist from B.C. to Newfoundland and also of the Arctic.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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