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A Brief History of the Lambeth Conference, Part I

For more than 100 years, the Anglican Communion has been talking through issues in search of resolution. First in a series.

The worldwide Anglican Communion has been meeting regular nearly every decade since 1948 in the Lambeth Conference. The meeting, which assembles all the bishops throughout the Anglican world, meets next month at the Lambeth center for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Those of you from other traditions may well wonder what’s so important about the Lambeth meeting of bishops? As one Scots theologian has remarked, the Anglican communion is “the duck-billed platypus of the theological tradition, neither catholic nor protestant but a bit of each.” “And,” the theologian continued, “in every way as such essential to the other world religions.”

As you read through Chris Webber’s remarks, you will find your thoughts tracing most of the essential developments and divisions that have marked the modern religious life. Questions about the place of birth control, racism, the authority of scriptures, homosexuality and more, have been discussed again and again in a reflection of the larger world concerns. What sets Lambeth apart, however, is it does not meet as a legislative body but as a group of committed Christians determined to find a common voice and common spirit. As you will find within Webber’s work, that’s not always easy or possible, but the effort is always worthwhile. As you read and reflect on Lambeth in the coming weeks, you will find one of the greatest tectonic cultural shifts in the history of humankind coming to the fore. Where we once divided the world in our minds as East and West, we will shortly through the “lens” of Lambeth likely discover the world in our future will be North and South, Northern Hemisphere and Southern. Points of conflicts and resolution will be coming to the surface, helping us to pave a peaceful and reconciled way forward. I hope you will gain as much as we Episcopalians (American Anglicans) expect to gain.

— The Rev. Jeff Bullock, rector, All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, 83 Eucalyptus Lane

*      *      *

John Henry Hopkins was Bishop of Vermont and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church when he suggested in 1851 that a gathering of Anglican bishops would be useful, but nothing happened. Fifteen years later the Canadian Anglican Church suggested the same thing to the Archbishop of Canterbury and got his reluctant consent.

Rev. Christopher L. Webber (Webber family photo)

“It should be distinctly understood,” said Archbishop Longley, “that at this meeting no declaration of faith shall be made, and no decision come to which shall affect generally the interests of the Church, but that we shall meet together for brotherly counsel and encouragement.” They would meet at the Archbishop’s townhouse in London, Lambeth Palace, and encourage each other, and go home again.

Even so, the Archbishop of York declined the invitation and only a bare majority — 76 of 144 — of the world’s Anglican bishops showed up. They met for four days in 1867 and the major excitement came when the Archbishop of Capetown, Robert Gray, brought up the matter of the Bishop of Natal, John William Colenso, who had done great work among the Zulus but upset the archbishop by his advanced views of biblical scholarship. In an uncanny preview of current events, the Archbishop declared Colenso to be heretical and sent a new bishop to serve the same area. Colenso stuck to his guns and his diocese and is now revered by the Church in South Africa as a great hero. The bishops referred the matter to a committee, which reported back long after most of the bishops had gone home.

Nonetheless, the idea of the conference seemed good and the bishops met again in 1878 to grapple with the nature of Anglican unity and pass some resolutions that are still relevant today. It is, they said, “of great importance for the maintenance of union among the Churches of our Communion” that “the duly certified action of every national or particular Church ... should be respected by all the other Churches” and that “no bishop or other clergyman of any other Church should exercise his functions within (some other) diocese without the consent of the bishop thereof.”

By the third conference, 1888, the bishops had grown comfortable enough with their meetings to begin passing a wide variety of resolutions on subjects ranging from socialism to polygamy. A central concern was the nature of Anglicanism. Two years earlier, the Episcopal General Convention had adopted a statement offering to work toward Christianity unity on the basis of four essentials: the Bible, the Creeds, the two sacraments of Baptism and Communion, and the historic episcopate. Adopted by the 1888 conference, it is now known as “The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral” and has found a place in the American Book of Common Prayer (pages 876-878).

Three conferences had created a tradition and led the bishops to imagine a wide variety of resolutions that might be adopted. The 13 resolutions of the first conference and 12 of the second had increased to 20 at the third, but in 1897 the bishops adopted 69 resolutions on subjects as diverse as world peace, relations with the Easter Orthodox, communion for the sick, and care for church members emigrating to new countries. They were very clear that however diverse the members of the church might be in language and ethnicity they were members of one church. They stressed again that it would be very wrong for two bishops of the church to attempt to carry on a ministry in the same area.

The issue of freedom and unity was addressed again in the statement that “it is important that, so far as possible, the Church should be adapted to local circumstances ... and nothing is required of them but what is of the essence of the faith, and belongs to the due order of the Catholic Church.” The first of these statements, of course, left undefined what was meant by being “in full communion with the Church of England” and the second left open “what is of the essence of the faith, and belongs to the due order of the Catholic Church.” More than a century later, these questions remain unanswered.

Click here for the second installment, click here for the third installment and click here for the final installment.

The Rev. Christopher L. Webber is an Episcopal priest living in Connecticut. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Beyond Beowulf, the first-ever sequel to Beowulf, and A Year with American Saints. An American Prayer Book is scheduled for August publication.

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