Lambeth Conference: News or Not?
It has been spoken of as a setting for schism. But could the Lambeth Conference — the worldwide Anglican Communion‘s once-a-decade global meeting beginning July 16 in England — be a bust when it comes to headline-making news?
That’s the way leaders of the U.S. Episcopal Church see it. There will be no grand pronouncements made or resolutions voted on, they say. The traditional Western parliamentary idea that produces winners and losers on debated issues has been scrapped for face-to-face meetings. Some of them have been baptized “Indaba groups,” which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described as a Zulu term denoting “a meeting for purposeful discussion among equals.”
The Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor of World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts who helped plan the meeting, recently told reporters at a briefing:
“I appreciate that it’s going to be a hard job for the media because there isn’t a focal point of up-down decison making, and that (much) of what’s really happening … is going to be happening in very small, very close one-on-one relationships and deep conversation.
“I don’t envy your job. It’s going to be difficult to get ‘the story’ out of Lambeth unless you want to tell the story that as leaders come together to be better equipped in their service to God’s mission in the wider world, not only is the Anglican Communion strengthened but God’s purposes are better fulfilled in the wider world. It’s a tough story to tell but I think it’s a story.”
The 1998 Lambeth Conference did produce news — a resolution known as Lambeth 1:10 that said homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture. That pronouncement became a major part of the splintering now going on in the worldwide church after the American branch in 2003 installed the first the first bishop known to be in an openly gay relationship in more than four centuries of Anglican history — Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Robinson was not invited to this summer’s meeting at Canterbury though he plans a fringe presence — after he weds his long-time partner in June.
The news at Lambeth ’08 then may be more about who doesn’t come. Already 280 conservative bishops from Africa, Latin America and Asia have said they will attend a break-away summit in Jerusalem in June to “prepare for an Anglican future in which the Gospel is uncompromised and Christ-centered mission a top priority.” They expect about 1,000 conservative Anglican leaders to attend.
Bishops from Uganda, Kenya and Australia have said they plan to boycott Lambeth, to which more than 800 bishops have been invited. Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, a leader among the traditionalists, has said he may also skip Lambeth.
Douglas, in the briefing mentioned earlier, said the hope is that the bishops who attend the meeting in Jerusalem will also go to Lambeth. There is, he said, “no fear or concern” that the Jerusalem summit is an exclusionary Lambeth alternative.
Much of this reflects Anglicanism’s structure where federation trumps hierarchy. The Episcopal News Service noted at one point that there is no complete agreement on when any resolution passed by a Lambeth Conference becomes official church teaching. The Lambeth meetings, which date to the 19th century, do not have specific authority to require compliance with their resolutions, it said.
Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who joined Douglas at the briefing, also has a long-term view. One of the first Lambeth Conferences well over a century ago, she said, was called “to deal with issues like bishops teaching things that other bishops found uncomfortable, and bishops wandering into other bishops’ territories and how do to we transfer clergy from one part of the communion to another.
“And we still haven’t sorted that out. The gathering will continue to wrestle with some of the challenges of living together in a compex, diverse and sometimes challenging family. That is God’s gift to use and we celebrate it,” she said at the briefing (view webcast here).
It also reflects Anglicanism’s diversity, with half of its 77 million members now in Africa, Asia and Latin America, many with conservative views on issues that go deeper than just those involving gays. In terms of numbers, the bishops organizing the Jerusalem meeting claim to represent 17 countries and 35 million followers.
The road from Jerusalem to Canterbury will be closely watched.