Fall 2008, Vol. 11, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Region Matters

The Postville Raid

FLDS 1, Texas O

Is the Dalai Lama Slipping?

Lambeth Blah, Blah, Blah

Women's Ordination Revisited

Having it All

Twilight of the Religion Writers

New books

Letter to Editor


Lambeth Blah, Blah, Blah 
by Frank Kirkpatrick


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 attention.

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 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 ( 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 Christ.”

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.


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