Lambeth Blah, Blah, Blah
Did anyone notice that the Lambeth conference of bishops in the Anglican
Communion met this summer? It was the first Lambeth since 1998, when the
assembled bishops passed a resolution declaring both same-sex relationships
and the ordination of openly gay clergy illegitimate.
Since then, huge fissures have opened up in the Anglican Communion,
especially between the churches in the United States and Canada and those in
Africa and Asia, around what many Global South conservatives believe is the
betrayal of the 1998 resolution by Global North liberals.
Much of the potential drama of this year’s Lambeth was removed, however,
when the official host of the conference, Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC)
Rowan Williams, decided not to allow resolutions but to focus instead on
episcopal reflections and relationships. The ABC also barred the press from
the bishops’ private meetings, not a move designed to attract media
Add to that the deepening financial crisis in the newspaper industry (noted
by Julia Druin of the Washington Times in an August 13 blog post),
and it’s not hard to understand why none of the major news outlets in the
United States chose to send a religion reporter across the Atlantic to cover
the predictable and usually news-less briefings that were given by
apparently randomly selected bishops in hot and humid tents dotting the
campus of the University of Kent.
To be sure, the New York Times’ London bureau chief John Burns did
file some dispatches throughout the gathering. The Religion News Service
relied on on-site reporting by Daniel Burke. For Americans, the most
informative reporting was provided by the Episcopal News Service through
Episcopal Life Online (ELO), which was represented by Mary Frances
Schonberg, Solange De Santis, and Pat McCaughan.
For many publications, the default media storyline centered on Gene
Robinson, the partnered gay bishop of New Hampshire, who has been a
lightning rod for conservative discontent since he was elected in 2003. Some
stories suggested that all the troubles in the Anglican Communion began with
his election, but as GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly pointed out in a critique
of an August 3 article by the AP’s Rachel Zoll, the Communion started to
splinter in 2000, when African bishops began ordaining discontented
conservative American prelates to the episcopate. One might argue that
within the Episcopal Church, it really began in the 1970s, with revisions to
the prayer book and the ordination of women.
Then there was the headline on Karla Adam’s August 4 “special” to the
Washington Post, which read, “Gay Bishop Dispute Dominates Conference.”
In fact, it didn’t.
Gene Robinson was in England during the conference, but made no appearance
there—having not been invited by the ABC and technically also forbidden to
preach, though he did “speak” in a local church. If anything dominated the
conference, it was the much appreciated development of personal
relationships among the attending bishops.
With respect to the nascent schism among Episcopalians, the press had
trouble getting a fix on the number of congregations that had actually left
the Episcopal Church (TEC).
On July 16, USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman accurately put the number
at “fewer than 100,” but the London Times’ Ruth Gledhill claimed the
following day that it was 300. A week later, the International Herald
Tribune ran a piece by a leading conservative who claimed that
100 priests had been deposed and 200 congregations have been exiled from
TEC—as if the departures had been anything but voluntary.
In fact, as of the fall of 2007, no more than 55 congregations had left, or
had voted to leave, TEC. In an August 18 e-mail to me, Kirk Hadaway (who
keeps the national church’s statistics at www.episcopalchurch.org/research)
indicated that the current number is now somewhere between 55 and 100—out of
a total of 7,679.
Another confusion concerned the Anglican bishops who allegedly boycotted
Lambeth as a protest against the presence of U.S. bishops who had approved
the consecration of Robinson. Although most reporters got the number of
bishops actually attending the conference close to right—the official figure
from James Rosenthal, the director of communications for the Anglican
Communion Office, was 670 out of 880 invited—they consistently put the
number of non-attendees “boycotting” the conference at between 230 and 250.
The difference between the invitees and the attendees was only 210, and some
of these simply couldn’t come because of sickness or other personal reasons.
The idea of a boycott arose out of a conservative initiative known as the
Global Anglican Future (GAFCON), which held a conference at the end of June
in Jerusalem as an alternative to Lambeth. It was attended by 291 bishops,
which suggests that at least 70 did decide to attend Lambeth. Indeed, both
James Macintyre of the London Independent and the New York Times’
John Burns did stories on African bishops who chose to attend despite
apparent suasion from their national church leaders (primates) not to do so.
GAFCON itself had been generally well covered in the press. Dina Kraft and
Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times provided a good summary of the
Jerusalem meeting on June 30, as did Jay Tolson in an August 7 article that
was posted July 23 on the US News and World Report website. The
conference made news because its “Jerusalem Declaration” proposed the
creation of a new province in the Anglican Communion that would be composed
of all defecting parishes in the United States and Canada.
The declaration also defended the “planting of new churches among unreached
peoples”—a not-so-subtle defense of the practice of “boundary-crossing”
(bishops acting in provinces not their own) that was criticized in the
Windsor Report that was commissioned by the ABC in 2004.
The declaration proclaimed as well that “we do not accept that Anglican
identity is determined necessarily through recognition of the Archbishop of
Canterbury.” And it called for the creation of a Primates’ Council to
“authenticate and recognize confessing Anglican jurisdictions, clergy, and
congregations.” Of GAFCON’s multiple attacks on the Global North, one of the
most vehement was the claim that those not in sympathy with its theology
were spreading a different and false gospel.
Rowan Williams initially responded to the declaration in a cool if somewhat
conciliatory way. The “tenets of orthodoxy” in the document (e.g., the
uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the imperative of evangelism) would, he said,
“be acceptable to and shared by the vast majority of Anglicans in every
province.” But he called the proposals for a Primates’ council and for
episcopal boundary-crossing problematic and completely rejected the
“different gospel” accusation.
But a month later, pushing his proposal for an Anglican Covenant in his
final address at Lambeth, he went out of his way to find points of agreement
with the GAFCON statement. In particular, he nodded kindly at GAFCON’s
proposed primates council to deal with breaches of the faith as construed by
one province against another—an idea that bore some resemblance to a
proposed “Pastoral Council” in the draft covenant.
Williams’ initial response to GAFCON’s statement (with “equanimity,”
according to the London Times’ Gledhill, writing on June 28)
resulted in a number of stories about a beleaguered ABC. He was described as
a “hapless…shepherd wringing hands while bulls lock horns” (Africa News,
July 7) and a “godly man…theorizing when what is needed is action” (a bishop
quoted by Stephen Bates, the Guardian, July 15).
As Lambeth drew to a close, one of the non-attending primates, Henry Orombi
of Uganda, delivered a blistering attack on Williams, saying that he had
betrayed the churches that had remained true to the Bible by extending
invitations to bishops who consented to Robinson’s consecration. Orombi also
accused the office of the ABC of being a remnant of British colonialism.
Nonetheless, Williams managed to emerge from Lambeth in pretty good shape.
On August 4, Ruth Gledhill noted that he had raised hopes that he could hold
the Communion together and that 75 percent of those attending said that he
was providing the leadership needed for it. The same day, John Burns
observed in his last Lambeth story that the conference’s final document
spoke of great love and affection for Williams and suggested that the
gathering may in fact have strengthened his hand.
The emphasis on “relationships” did, at least briefly, seem to have achieved
Williams’s intentions. The bishops participated in both Bible study groups
and small “indaba” groups—so called after a Zulu practice of gathering
community leaders together to discuss matters of concern to the tribe. Jim
Naughton of the diocese of Washington, D.C., posting on .com on July 31,
quoted Australian primate Philip Aspinall as saying that “bishops from
opposite ends of the spectrum actively embraced each other and thanked each
other for helping each other” understand how the issue of sexuality plays
out in their provinces.
After the discussions, Bishop Ian Earnest, chair of the Council of Anglican
Provinces of Africa (CAPA), noted with approval that he had spoken with
passion for his own [conservative] convictions and an Episcopal bishop of
his apparently opposite convictions “and then we held hands and said `we’ve
got to journey together.’” (It should, however, be noted that Earnest’s was
the first signature on a Statement by Global South bishops attacking the
U.S. and Canadian churches for perpetrating recrimination and hostility on
“faithful bishops” issued at the end of the conference.)
One conservative American bishop, Duncan Gray of Mississippi, extolled the
fact that the Episcopal Church was living with its differences and asked the
Anglican Conference to respect that and let us be. “What I cannot make peace
with is the portrayal of my sister and brother bishops in the Episcopal
Church, who disagree with me, as bearers of a false gospel,” Bishop Alan
Wilson of Buckingham reported on his blog
(bishopalan.blogspot.com/2008/07/man-from-south.html) on July 28. “That
portrayal does violence to the imperfect, but faithful, grace-filled, and
often costly way, in which they live out their love of the Lord Jesus
Although a Lambeth without voted-on resolutions seemed to work for most
attending, Canadian primate Fred Hiltz complained that there had been no
response to his request to be heard on his church’s stance on same-sex
blessings, or any willingness to hear the Episcopal Church’s explanation of
how it arrived at a decision to consecrate Robinson (reported on Episcopal
Life Online, August 1).
At the close of the conference, Williams expressed his support for further
work on the still disputed Anglican Covenant, which is likely to take
another four or five years. Under dispute is whether the covenant would
enable the Communion to sit in judgment on provinces that offend other
provinces, or whether it would be merely pedagogical, helping the members of
the Communion to understand the basic theological tenets that should hold
the group of national churches together.
One of the best received speeches at the conference was given on July 28 by
Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, who underscored the
importance of respecting diversity as God’s will by persons in a group bound
by a covenant [to use a term Williams is particularly fond of] based on
reciprocity and trust, not necessarily on the basis of identical beliefs.
The final “Lambeth Indaba” document (which the bishops had little time to
read, let alone debate) reported that the bishops generally agreed that
until such time as the entire Communion signed on to the Covenant, there
would be continuing “moratoria” on ordaining openly gay clergy and bishops
and on the blessing of same-sex relationships, as well as respect for
traditional boundaries between dioceses and provinces.
It was not clear, however—and none of the press picked up on this—whether
the moratorium on the blessing of same-sex relationships referred only to
officially approved “rites” of blessing (none of which now exist) or also to
pastorally approved blessings without benefit of a formal liturgy (which is
very common in some American and Canadian dioceses).
One issue that lay pretty much hidden in the all the verbiage of the
documents emanating from the Conference was the perennial problem of how to
reconcile “prophetic” actions with maintaining the unity of the Communion.
The ABC had warned about taking any such actions that are likely to disturb
unity. And yet the Indaba document called on bishops “to be a prophetic
voice for the voiceless” (which is precisely what many gay and lesbians
believe they are).
For all the efforts at personal reconciliation, the Global South bishops
threw down the gauntlet in their August 3 “Statement.” They stood, they
said, “in solidarity” with the faithful bishops in United States and Canada
“who are suffering recrimination and hostility perpetrated upon them by
their dioceses and/or national churches.” And, having previously criticized
the American and Canadian churches for taking unwarranted “prophetic”
actions on behalf of gays and lesbians, they lauded the “prophetic and
priestly vocation of the Global South.”
Lambeth 2008 did not resolve the future of the Anglican Communion, but it
did shore up Rowan Williams’ role in whatever its future turns out to be.
For the conservatives, the question of what to do about the American church,
as Robert Pigott put it in his “Lambeth Diary” for the BBC News August 4,
was “kicked into the long grass.”
It is doubtful that the conservatives will remain content until that ball
can be retrieved. Nor will “relationships” and “reflections” content them,
when what they really want is a quick and definitive disciplining of those
they consider heretics. That the Communion is unlikely to give them.