Stretching back to 1867 when an archbishop of Canterbury first invited the world’s Anglican bishops to meet, Lambeth Conferences have played a key role in the Anglican Communion’s sense of historic continuity. They have also marked the milestones of profound historical change for an evolving, international church.
Held every 10 years, the conferences, like the one to be held July 18-Aug. 9 in England this summer, draw bishops together to talk and worship, pray and confer. While not a legislative meeting, a Lambeth Conference can have wide-ranging importance through the advisory statements it adopts or the reports it issues.
“I think everyone who goes to Lambeth is changed by it, and hopefully they come away with a broadened sense of how Christ shows up in different parts of the world, in different guises, speaking different languages, appropriating different cultural realities,” said Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Certainly, “the church is never the same after a Lambeth Conference,” observed Bishop Mark Dyer, retired bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem and a professor of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.
For this, the 13th Lambeth Conference since the first gathering of 76 bishops, more bishops than ever before will participate. Because Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has invited suffragan (or assistant) as well as diocesan bishops, almost 800 bishops are expected, a significant jump from the 518 who attended 10 years ago. Their meetings, worship and special events will fill the halls of the University of Kent in Canterbury, site of the cathedral that is regarded as the “mother church” of Anglicanism. They will also travel to London for visits to Lambeth Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen.
Not only will this Lambeth be the largest, it also will reflect dramatically the communion’s shifting demographics. Voices from the developing world may manage to strongly influence the course of deliberations, traditionally dominated by bishops of England and the United States. And for the first time ever, female bishops will be present as eight women from the United States, two from Canada and one from New Zealand join their male counterparts.
The bishops will be divided into four groups to address different topics: Chaired by Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, the first group will address social and economic justice as well as pastoral concerns. Subsections will consider human rights, environment, human sexuality, modern technology, euthanasia, international debt and economic justice.
The second group, chaired by Bishop Rowan Williams of the Diocese of Monmouth in the Church of Wales, will address questions of the mission of the church.
The third group, chaired by Bishop Frederick Borsch of the Diocese of Los Angeles in the United States, will consider challenges and opportunities of diversity within the church and world.
The fourth group, chaired by Bishop Jabez Bryce of Polynesia, will consider ecumenical relations.
In addition, the bishops, their spouses and other participants, together numbering nearly 2,000, will gather for plenary sessions on key subjects, including moral decision-making, Christian-Islamic relations, and international debt.
While some protests against the presence of female bishops are expected, most predictions suggest that the question of ordained women – a flash point for the 1988 conference – will be essentially a non-issue.
“In gathering the agenda from the whole communion, as we did for the last three years, we didn’t have anybody who wrote to us saying that women and the ordained ministry had to be on the agenda this time,” said Bishop Dyer, who will serve as editor for the conference. “You can see how calmed down the whole world communion is about this.”
But at least one bishop has said he will not come to Lambeth because female bishops will be present, and as many as 50 bishops have indicated they will hold a parallel meeting in symbolic boycott. Some have indicated they will refuse to participate even in Bible study with female bishops.
But Bishop Griswold suggested that for hundreds of other bishops Lambeth will offer a positive first exposure to female bishops.
“I think for a great many Anglican bishops `ordained women’ is an abstraction rather than an incarnate experience,” he said. “So my sense is that there will probably be some wonderful conversations and enlargements of perspectives that will occur through bishops coming to know some of the women bishops of the Anglican Communion.”
Of much more concern at this Lambeth are differences of opinion over the place of homosexuals in the church, as a coalition of conservative bishops pushes for adoption of a statement calling any ordination of non-celibate homosexuals or blessing of same-sex unions “unacceptable.” Other bishops hope that the issue may be referred to a study process similar to that adopted for the women’s ordination question.
The conference could have its greatest influence, however, as it addresses a question with far-reaching economic and human impact – international debt. When bishops in the different regions of the Communion were asked to identify their chief concerns, the burden of debt that sorely hampers the efforts of developing countries to improve the lot of their citizens was flagged repeatedly. “There were a number of subjects which nearly all the bishops thought to be a priority for consideration,” Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey noted. “Amongst these, the issue of international debt stood out.”
Despite advances in many developing nations, “the cost of servicing this debt hangs like a noose around the necks of their economies,” Archbishop Carey added. Lambeth could add an important voice to the growing chorus calling for forgiveness of the debt in a “Jubilee Year 2000,” modeled on the biblical tradition of freeing slaves and returning land to its owners every 50 years.
The struggles of Christians in some regions of the world to live in peace with their Islamic neighbors, and the successful co-operation between the two faiths in other regions, will pose a daunting topic, observed Secretary General John L. Peterson in an article in Anglican World, the Anglican Communion’s international magazine. Experiences brought to Lambeth to be shared may range from “the Middle East where Muslims and Christians live together and support each other’s work and ministries, joining forces to seek justice and peace in the Holy Land,” he wrote, to the struggles in Sudan, Malaysia and Pakistan “where conflict, fear, oppression and ignorance all combine to make living conditions almost unbearable.” James H. Thrall will serve as news director for the Anglican Communion News Service team covering Lambeth Conference.