Analysis: The winners and losers from the Lambeth Conference: CEN 8.22.08 p 7. August 21, 2008Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Lambeth 2008.
The 14th Lambeth Conference was a triumph for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, in light of the criteria set forward for success by its organizers, but did not prevent the collapse of the Anglican Communion.
“The miracle hasn’t happened,” Presiding Bishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone said on Aug 2. “It was a good try,” he observed, but Lambeth had not worked, leaving division as the most likely option. “We have gotten this far without formally announcing our division, but we haven’t announced it,” he told the German Catholic New Agency.
“The division is over what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a church,” Bishop Venables said, and the conference did not bridge the gap.
For traditionalists, Lambeth 2008 let down the communion, leaving it millions in debt and with left and right further entrenched in their positions. The call for dialogue was not heeded, and the pleas for restraint on gay bishops and blessings, as well as cross-border episcopal incursions, were rejected out of hand before the close of the conference.
On its own terms, Lambeth 2008 was an institutional success. The oft foretold schism of the Anglican Communion did not appear to take place between July 16 and Aug 3 on the campus of the University of Kent in Canterbury, and the bishops were seen to be expressing mild statements of concern on global warming, poverty, disease, hunger, domestic violence and other generally bad things—while also affirming, in a non-controversial or provocative way, generally good things: peace, the brotherhood of mankind, and church unity.
The format of small group sessions were generally lauded in as much as bishops from across the communion were able to gather in small groups of eight to share experiences and make friends. Dr. Williams’ retreat lectures were universally praised, though at times not clearly comprehended, and the topics of several plenary sessions were of professional interest to a large number of bishops.
US Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori exercised a strong whip hand over her bishops, rebuffing attempts by the progressive faction to bring up the issue of Bishop Gene Robinson’s exclusion, and avoiding any outright breach with Dr. Williams. Most American bishops kept to the script given them before the conference by a communications consulting firm, and during their daily briefings chanted the mantra of “unity” in “diversity.”
While the bishops at Lambeth knew Gene Robinson was in their midst, actually seeing him was a bit of a coup as the New Hampshire bishop was confined to a far corner of the campus and his public outings inconveniently scheduled.
By couching the single conference statement as a “reflection,” Lambeth 2008 found a way to avoid any one group or constituency amongst the bishops coming out the loser, with their views cast as the minority position. By asking the bishops whether they could hear their own voice amongst the chorus in the reflections document, the Lambeth Conference assured like the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”
No ecclesial missiles were fired, the Americans behaved, Gene Robinson was muted, and the more embarrassing bishops were far away—no impromptu exorcisms of gay activists as happened at the 98 conference before the cameras of the BBC this time.
For Dr. Williams, then, the conference was a success and his plan of staving off a confrontation until the completion of the Anglican Covenant, which would shift the onus of deciding whether one was “in or out” away from Canterbury onto the provinces, a sound one.
However, few of the bishops questioned by The Church of England Newspaper over the course of the conference and in the week after, saw themselves or the communion as “winners.” Liberals were aggrieved by Dr. Williams’ turn against them on the closing day, when he called for a moratorium on gay bishops and blessings—and singled out the Episcopal Church for opprobrium as the chief troublemaker in the communion.
Conservatives entered the conference discouraged by the absence of over 60 percent of the African diocesan bishops, and left frustrated that nothing substantive was accomplished. Fears Dr. Williams was “not on side” were not assuaged by his conservative-sounding closing presidential address on Aug 3, as a steady onslaught of progressive Bible studies, politically correct plenary sessions, and in the words of one American conservative bishop–“asinine” Indaba groups was a source of frustration and impatience.
The central failure of the conference, however, flowed from the decision not to confront the issues dividing the communion. During the 2003 primates meeting, Archbishop Peter Akinola and a small group of primates were persuaded by Dr. Williams to attend communion services with US Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, even though their scruples forbad them from doing so.
Over the succeeding five years, the inability of Anglican bishops to worship round a common altar has not been addressed, and even with a boycott of over 200 bishops the opening eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral saw three primates and a number of bishops refrain from receiving communion due to their theological difficulties with the American church. These positions were not softened during the three weeks at Lambeth, but hardened with some bishops convinced that dialogue in the terms proposed by Dr. Williams was now fruitless.
Up until now, the Anglican Communion has held together “by appealing to diversity,” Bishop Venables said.
However, he asked “Can we sacrifice what we believe for unity? I don’t think we can make that decision on the spur of the moment. It is unfair to ask people to sacrifice their convictions for the sake of a unity that is by no means certain.”
The attempts at conversation had not worked. “I hoped we would be able to talk about very serious things, we tried to but were unable to,” he said. The small group process helped “but there wasn’t enough trust. The level of conflict, fear, mistrust, frustration hasn’t allowed it.”
The problem of authority within Anglicanism was not being addressed, he argued. “Anglicanism has always said we were not a vertical church, but now it would help to have a council of cardinals to help us.”
“You have authority in the local church, authority in the diocese, authority in the province, why not have it in the whole church?” he asked. However, there are “no ground rules to define the Anglican Church. No ground rules outside the province. Now we have no way of avoiding the division,” Bishop Venables said.
“We talk but nothing is decided. People are frustrated,” and Lambeth 2008 did not address these needs, Bishop Venables said.