The eleventh conference of the bishops of the worldwide Anglican (Episcopal) Church concluded on August 13. The first (1867) was attended by 76 bishops, but this one brought 440 together plus 25 observers from other churches and 20 consultants of whom I had the privilege of being one.
This decennial assemblage of bishops is called the Lambeth Conference because the earliest conferences were held at Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But this year for the first time the conference was held out of London, at the University of Kent, overlooking Canterbury Cathedral in which Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. For the first time too the conference has been residential, permitting three weeks of communal living.
The Anglican Communion has recently been described by Edward Norman, Dean of Peterhouse, Cambridge, as “that ecclesiastical ghost of the deceased British Empire.” It is a rather harsh judgment, however. For there are hardly any “colonial bishops” left. Instead, the twenty-five “provinces” into which this church of some 65 million Anglicans is divided are all autonomous, with an almost entirely indigenous leadership. Approximately one-third of the bishops who converged on Canterbury last month came from the Third World, about 150 from Africa, and 50 from Asia. We specially rejoiced that 20 bishops came from Uganda. President Amin flew them out in a special plane, with a large security escort and an invitation to the Archbishop to hold the next Lambeth Conference in Uganda.
It was typical of Donald Coggan, the president of the conference, being the man of God that he is, to emphasize that the overriding purpose was “prayer and waiting upon God.” In his sermon during the opening service in Canterbury Cathedral he issued a mild rebuke to his brother bishops that “we have stopped listening to God,” and went on to describe his ideal for a bishop as “one who is open to the wind of the Spirit, warmed by the fire of the Spirit, on the look-out for the surprises of the Spirit.” So each day’s program began before breakfast with a service according to the liturgy of one of the provinces and after breakfast with a devotional lecture.
Only then did we turn to the day’s business, either in plenary sessions or divided into three sections or subdivided into thirty-three groups. These studied topics as varied as mission and ministry, politics, violence, conservation, social ethics, technology, the family, and ecumenical relations. Some people have mistakenly tried to draw an analogy between Vatican II and Lambeth XI, and in consequence their expectations have not been fulfilled. For the Lambeth Conference is a consultative, not a legislative body. Its only authority is moral and persuasive.
One of the thorniest issues before the conference was that of women priests (i.e. presbyters). On the one hand 150 women have already been ordained to the presbyterate (in Hong Kong, U.S.A., Canada, and New Zealand), and half the member churches have agreed to it in principle. On the other, the ordination of women has caused deep division, including a small schism in the American Episcopal Church, while both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches had plainly warned that an affirmative vote would jeopardize the continuance of Anglican talks with them. How, they asked, could one church, acting unilaterally, overthrow a universal tradition that had been unbroken for 1,900 years? In the end a confessedly compromise resolution was passed, securing 316 votes, with only 37 against and 17 abstaining. In it the conference recognizes the autonomy of its member churches, and encourages them to continue in communion and dialogue with each other; declares its “acceptance” both of those member churches that now ordain women and of those that do not; and emphasizes for the benefit of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that this “holding together of diversity within a unity of faith and worship is part of the Anglican heritage.” Many people were disappointed by the lack of theological debate. It was said that the arguments on both sides had by now been well rehearsed. But Archbishop Marcus Loane of Sydney reminded the bishops that the 1958 Lambeth Conference had declared the arguments “inconclusive,” and that in his conviction they had still not been resolved. He pleaded with the conference not to dismiss the theological issues as if they were of no account. But his warning, and that of those who counseled a five-year moratorium, went unheeded.
Although a whole day was set aside for debate on this important question, I am glad to say that the bishops did not spend all their time on domestic matters. For the overall topic was “Today’s Church and Today’s World.” When the conference first convened, Lady Jackson (alias Barbara Ward) and the Reverend Professor Charles Elliott delivered notable lectures on conservation and economics. In response, the bishops approved a statement that challenges many modern assumptions and values. They plead for a new kind of society in which technology becomes the servant of the people, the economy is based on stewardship rather than waste, changed attitudes toward work and leisure are developed, the necessity of a redistribution of wealth and trade is faced, and progressive world disarmament is achieved. They passed another resolution on “war and violence,” and a third on “human rights and dignity,” which was originally put forward by some of the African bishops but was later universalized.
I was disappointed that comparatively little was said about mission and evangelism. True, one group’s report has a full statement about the relations between worship and mission, about evangelistic witnessing (“the spontaneous overflow of hearts filled with Christ”), about the urgent need for cross-cultural missionaries (“there are still millions of people in the world who have never heard of Jesus Christ or had an adequate opportunity to respond to him”), about social action, and about the need for the church to be radically renewed, since “mission without renewal is hypocrisy.” But the resolutions themselves, which alone carry the authority of the whole conference, almost ignore the subject. Bishop Festo Kivengere proposed an amendment to a resolution on dialogue, stating that “dialogue can never be a substitute for proclamation,” and calling on member churches “to respond with greater obedience to our Lord’s unfulfilled commission.” But it was narrowly defeated. Strange. I cannot believe that Anglican bishops have now washed their hands of evangelism; it is more charitable to guess that they had not fully understood the purport of Bishop Festo’s amendment.
John R. W. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England.
John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."
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