Two Lambeth books – one official, one not – should be read together

Published November 1, 1999

Lambeth 1998 is more than a year past now, but the aftermath is still very much with us ? its latest manifestation being the recent attack by the “conservative” Archbishop of Singapore on the “liberal” Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland.

Though Lambeth Conferences cannot legislate for the Anglican world, their pronouncements are highly influential. These two books ? one official and the other definitely not ? should be read together to discover not only the decisions of Lambeth, but more importantly, how they were reached.

The Official Report

[pullquote]The editors state that the book “does not seek to convey the essence” of that gathering of 750 Anglican bishops from around the world, “but to record its resolutions, reports, and principal addresses.” There is nothing here, for example, of the bitter fight over homosexuality, but the reader would find it instructive to compare the section report saying “we are not of one mind” with the later resolution condemning homosexual practice, and an even more fundamentalist/homophobic resolution which the conference rejected.

But there is much more to this report than sexuality. It brings together a comprehensive picture of where the Anglican Communion is now on issues of church, state, peace, interfaith relations, justice, faith and unity, and myriad other issues, and where it wants to go in the future.

As the official report, it carries all the paper from Lambeth: decisions, the addresses and sermons given, and the reports of the four main sectional groups and sub-groups. In addition to the full report, the final section and other reports have been published separately for convenient study.

Perhaps of equal importance to its recording of formal conference decisions is the fact that the report also shows what the conference would not say on some issues.

This is not just another souvenir to gather dust on episcopal bookshelves ? it is a study resource that will set the tone and agenda for dialogue and decision making across the Anglican Communion for the next decade or longer.

Diversity or Disunity?

Decisions show only the tip of the iceberg. National or local churches may disregard Lambeth pronouncements if they choose, but never ignore them, so insights into the dynamics of decision-making are not only useful but essential to follow-up study.

Written by the director of news and information for the U.S. Episcopal church, with acknowledgement to many other members of the media corps at Lambeth (including Anglican Journal editor David Harris), this book tries to tell “the story behind the story” of Lambeth 1998.

That story is neither pretty nor edifying. In some ways it is reminiscent of the old Saturday matinee western: right down to the good guys and bad guys being identifiable by the colour of their hats (or mitres). On opposing sides can be found an ugly American and a political boss handing out money, both stereotypes recognizable in the book.

The surface issue was homosexuality, but it really was about interpretation of Scripture coupled with cultural and political muscle-flexing by bishops from the developing world who for the first time formed the majority at Lambeth. Biblically conservative bishops from Africa and Asia formed an alliance with a like-minded group from the older churches (who supplied savvy and, allegedly, money), against liberals mainly from Britain and North America.

The book gives a capsule history of Lambeth Conferences since 1867 under the chapter heading “No Stranger to Controversy,” and an account of political manoeuvering before and during the conference, and some of the fallout afterward which included calls for a more authoritarian central structure to keep (in this case, liberal) dissidents in line. The key difference between this and other Lambeths was the poisonous rhetoric of some participants and refusal to compromise which tested to the limit those delicious old Anglican catchphrases about “bonds of affection” and “unity amid diversity.”

It would be simplistic to suggest, as some have, that the real problem was semi-educated biblical fundamentalism among the younger churches. One English bishop, who had taught in an African theological college, told me it was a mistake to underestimate the level of theological sophistication in Africa and Asia. Pressed, he agreed that there had also been an increase in political sophistication among bishops from those places. It was this factor which old Lambeth hands, mainly from British and North American churches, failed to recognize until too late.

This is a tightly packed mixture of fact and analysis, which, like The Official Report, covers many more issues than those around sexuality. It describes many moving moments when politics disappeared and the conference really seemed to come together, especially the powerful spiritual force of the daily Bible study.

But even a major achievement of Lambeth, the call for debt-forgiveness for Third World countries, may have been tainted: the book reports the suggestion that some bishops from developing countries supported anti-homosexual conservatives of the First World in exchange for backing of the debt-forgiveness initiative.

The author tries hard to be objective, but his insights still come filtered through northern hemisphere cultural lenses ? and an uncomfortable awareness that dominance, if not leadership, in the Anglican Communion now is centred south of the equator. However, the author recognizes, and works to overcome, that limitation. All things considered, this book will probably be as fair, comprehensive, and balanced an account and analysis of Lambeth ’98 as ordinary Anglicans are likely to get.

Like most books of its kind, this one leaves many questions unanswered, especially: Where was God in all this?

William Portman is book reviews editor for the Anglican Journal.


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