The Anglican Church is going through a reformation

Published September 1, 2008

THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION is alive and vibrant.

It has survived another Lambeth Conference, a bit bruised, battered and fragmented. Bishops at Canterbury rallied around pertinent issues of social justice, poverty and the environment, and they reached the only conclusion they could on human sexuality: compromise.

That is what happens within a healthy family: members listen to each other, give a little, take a little, and reach a compromise. The result: both poles in the human sexuality debate are left frustrated and eager to battle another day, but it is the “middle road” – via media — that has won the day.

The Anglican Communion emerged – as it always does after a Lambeth Conference — a church struggling to be faithful to scripture and relevant to today’s society. Theologians and church leaders will debate the importance of Lambeth 2008 for some time to come; a sort of ecclesiastical navel-gazing. This issue of The Journal is dedicating an entire supplement to Lambeth.

The Anglican Communion has developed a habit of going through watershed events every decade, so this latest gathering in Canterbury is really nothing new.

The Anglican Communion has been undergoing reformation for more than a century, ever since the Lambeth conferences began in 1867, constantly struggling with what it means to be “in the world but not of the world”; that spiritual tension between faith and culture. The history of the Lambeth conferences points to that ongoing tension. Lambeth has dealt with a number of significant issues over the years – including divorce, polygamy, the role of women in church leadership, and birth control.

Over the past century it has re-formed its stand on a number of those issues.    

The Lambeth Conference and the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) that preceded it can both be seen as a blessing for the Anglican Communion. The issues discussed at GAFCON were not, organizers said, significant enough to warrant leaving the communion. Whenever the church comes together to wrestle sincerely with an issue, even when that wrestling-match threatens to disintegrate the communion, the Church is strengthened.

The bishops who attended Lambeth sincerely struggled with the issue of human sexuality and the Church, and that struggle continues. But, as with its decisions on divorce, polygamy and birth control, history may very well record this issue as just one more hiccup in the Anglican Communion’s continued journey along the middle way. Time will tell.

A “Reformation Moment” occurred when hundreds of bishops and others joined the Walk of Witness through the streets of London, with ecumenical partners from around the world joining hands in solidarity to fight against poverty, injustice and the spread of HIV and AIDS. There is considerable, unconditional, ecumenical support for the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and the felt need to press governments to match that support.

This is not a social gospel. This is a deeply theological and spiritual commitment to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” All Anglicans, whether from North America or from the Global South, whether liberal or conservative, embrace all of these initiatives.

What does this mean for the Anglican Communion and, more specifically, for the Anglican Church of Canada? While we continue to devote time and energy to dealing with those issues that divide the Communion — and those issues are profound and deep – we need to continue to celebrate those rich spiritual treasures that unite us.

In a time when society dismisses the Church as irrelevant and the institutional church as archaic, we need to continue to preach Christ and to show Christ to those around us and those half a world away. The Lambeth Conference stands as a symbol of faith in action.

A reformation is taking place.


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